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Tourism grows from living roots

A story told by Marianne Schapmans Ghent, Belgium

Marianne Schapmans is director of the Holiday Participation Centre of Tourism Flanders


The more residents feel connected to their living space, the more tourists feel at home and are able to experience the unique atmosphere. Making a place attractive to tourists requires a thoughtful combination of people, economy, society, public space, architecture, culture and leisure. This was the conclusion reached by Marianne Schapmans, acting director of Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie (Holiday participation support centre), following the international leisure conference in Durban, South Africa. The conference gave her a fresh perspective on what tourism could look like in her own region of Flanders.


Marianne was the only West European at the LARASA (Leisure and Recreation Association of South Africa) conference. She had been invited by the organisers to talk about the work of Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie. The conference was attended by people from some 22 different countries including Canada, Africa, Taiwan and the United States. Architects, urban planners, sociologists, and experts in sport, leisure and tourism all came together to pool their knowledge and share their experiences in the field.

Forging links between different scientific disciplines

The long return journey to Belgium gave Marianne ample opportunity to reflect on her experiences. “In young nations such as South Africa post-apartheid, it is taken as a given that different scientific disciplines should work together to consider the development of leisure and tourism. It’s not the case in Western Europe. I can see that it’s harder here to break down the barriers between different professions and forge partnerships, even though connecting areas such as sport, tourism, leisure, sociology and economics could help to strengthen each area.”

Connecting leisure to a space

Durban, where the conference took place, is a city with 3 million inhabitants and a coastline stretching 60 kilometres. Since the end of apartheid, this area has become a lively leisure area for people of all backgrounds to play sport, swim, people-watch, sit, or walk: no fences, no police. Lots of people have a favourite spot where they can do their own thing in peace. “I was particularly impressed by the smart urban planning and architecture. Work, trade and leisure all come together in one place. This invites people to make use of the public space together, whether it’s for sport, or just to take a seat and watch the world go by. You don’t have to be doing anything to take part. I was really struck by the feeling of security and clear social cohesion,” says Marianne.

People want to relate to their city

It’s not hard to make the link to tourism. “If you factor in the quality of life of the local or regional population when you are thinking about tourism, you will strengthen the tourism industry. Local residents need to be exuding the identity of their region,” says Marianne. For example, the city of Hartfort in Connecticut adopted this mindset when promoting itself as a City of Arts and Culture in the USA. “Their idea is that a city can only adopt this identity if the local population contribute to it as well. Hartfort involves all sectors of the population in its developments. Art is brought out onto the street and left up to the public to embellish. The resulting piece is then put back in the museum. In this way people interact with the identity of their city. This is quite similar to something we do at Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie: giving certain sectors of the population a little boost to help them develop a relationship with their region.”

“If you factor in the quality of life of the local or regional population when you are thinking about tourism, you will strengthen the tourism industry. Local residents need to be exuding the identity of their region.” - Marianne Schapmans



What could this mean for Flanders?

“We can also strengthen the position of the ‘Flanders’ brand in the tourism industry by inviting more citizens to contribute to building the region’s identity and tourism industry,’ reflects Marianne. “There are already so many great and inspiring things here, such as unusual guided tours like the Tochten van Hoop (Hope tours) in Brussels, or the unique ambience of the Graslei in Ghent, where people can sit in a beer garden, go for a stroll or take their own picnic to the riverbank. There are plenty of unusual, very small-scale initiatives such as the Bottelarij in Wellen, which I discovered recently. It’s all there already: we just need to connect it together meaningfully.”

According to Marianne, whereas for most Flemings the distance between coastal De Panne and Maaseik on the Dutch border feels like a long journey, foreign visitors are all too happy to travel across the entire region. “We shouldn’t be afraid to make thematic connections across the whole region. That would highlight all of these wonderful initiatives, and add colour to the face of Flanders for tourists. The combination of all those local, living roots give our region great international potential. The initiatives linked to the centenary of the First World War and the bond people feel with this shared history is the perfect opportunity for this.”

Authored by Griet Bouwen Bilzen