Peter De Wilde, director of Visit Flanders (Toerisme Vlaanderen), initiated the 'Tourism Transforms' process by asking the question of whether and how tourism can become a transformative force for travellers, hosts, local communities and Flanders.
Tourism Transforms - The foundation has been laid
In April 2017 Peter De Wilde, director of Visit Flanders (Toerisme Vlaanderen), opened the door to a new path towards the future for his organisation and the sector.
Through a series of meetings, think-tank sessions and a large-scale listening research, the organisation opened up the image of the strength and future potential of tourism. A year later, some answers are on their way. Yes, tourism can transform people and places. Yes, to make that possible, the sector is faced with transformational times. And no, that transformation cannot be controlled by the government, at most facilitated. Just as a forester cannot grow trees, but can create conditions in which biodiversity in the forest does the job.
July 17, 2018
The holiday period is about to start in earnest. Through the open windows of the office at the Grasmarkt, the summer makes it clear that she has no intention of departing. The sound of a lively, car-free Brussels invades the corridors of Tourism Flanders. The holiday atmosphere pulls us out onto the street. Brussels in summer is baking and brimming. Tourists populate the heart of the city. We will be stranded in La Madeleine, a pub where we will be served our coffee and trappist in typical French style with a Flemish bottle. The conversation meanders from questions to wonder, hope and back again. Just like last year, I was engaging with this fascinating person who dares not to know. I remember his words and glance to see that this troublesome non-knowing is a lot more comfortable today than it was then. We talk about what Peter De Wilde is doing today, and where Tourism Transforms brought his ideas up to now.
Peter: When we took the first steps in the Tourism Transformation trajectory in May 2017, we did not know where we would be moving. It is an adventure, a journey of discovery, also for us as a government agency. That non-knowing and while continuing to investigate is crucial, I think. We do this together with colleagues from the sector. In the past year we asked ourselves questions, we discovered different ways of looking and we found out what is going on. Gradually we begin to see what we have to do and what society can count on.
Curious research instead of holding onto what is-as-is
The Transformation of Tourism initiative appears to be receiving quite a bit of acclaim in the sector. At the public kick-off in October 2017, 150 interested parties showed up. In the subsequent think tanks, a group of some seventy people who show the mental openness to not know and research together. There is something that apparently resonates with others, although it was - and remains - the most exciting project we have done.
Peter: Nobody likes to say 'I do not know'. And most people - even in our team at Tourism Flanders - only feel comfortable when things are clear and predictable. I will remember the sessions with the least tight scenario as the strongest moments in the process. Human behavior, and therefore the future, cannot be included in scenarios.
The administrator-general of Tourism Flanders does discover a tendency
Peter: 'I see that people - including professionals in the sector - are looking for more connections in groups. There are signs that super-individualism has passed its peak. I call it a 'pack', a group of people who experience that - at least temporarily and around a specific theme - they share something and are dependent on each other. At the same time, it requires courage to join others in such a search process. You put your questions on the table, show your practice, test your convictions and are prepared to tinker with it. And that also applies to me and my team. In the process of thinking about how tourism might transform and be transformed, we must continue to be willing to hold up a mirror to each other and be open to being struck by what we see together.
The group around Tourism Transform shares the realisation that the pursuit of the status quo is no longer the order of the day
Peter: Change has become the constant. The trick is to dare to deal with these changes. He refers to himself, to the team at Tourism Flanders, to the sector, the government and to civil society organizations. The transformation is happening at the same time in many social fields. It turns out that we have to reinvent ourselves in so many areas at the same time. What surprises me in this is how powerful it is to return to your roots in that process and give it a contemporary interpretation.
At the edge of our conversation about tourism, Peter regularly lays a parallel with 'his' Davidsfonds - he is chairman of a locally anchored midfield organisation that exists at the spearhead of cultural experience and education. There, and in the local civil society circle in his village Bazel (Kruibeke), Peter saw how the power to transform the future can stem from the re-exploration of historical roots.
Together, in the local community we thus regained what is important for all volunteers: the village, our heritage, nature, our home. If, on top of that, you give volunteers opportunities to do things in the association based on their interests, then such a group can make the battle for the future. It comes down to seeing and respecting people's talents and visions, and giving them opportunities to commit themselves from there. That is the meaning of local participation for me.
What has knowing your place to do with tourism?
Back to tourism. What can these stories about local engagement tell the sector? Peter talks about the energy that arises when people know, appreciate and appreciate their place, their home. This grows pride, he says. Pride drives people to show their place to guests and to develop a culture of hospitality. Because what you are proud of, you want to share that with others. With travellers, for example, by welcoming them to your local community for the time they are visiting.
Tourism Flanders carried out research into the impact of travel on travellers' lives. In essence, the transformative power of travel appears to lie in the experience of a place (lifestyle, values, socio-political situation, culture and nature) and the meeting with its residents and local service providers.
Peter: Many people experience a truly successful holiday when they experience things just because they feel absorbed in the local community. The experience of being able to belong during their stay, leaves a deep impression. And Flanders could be strong in that, he thinks.
Can be, indeed. Because the average Fleming hardly seems to realise that our places and culture can produce surprising experiences for travellers. Peter refers to another research. This showed that Flemish people hardly promote their region abroad with love or enthusiasm.
Peter: If you ask a Flemish person about a top holiday experience, he will seldom or never tell you a story about his own country. That is strikingly different with, say, Germans, Dutch or French. This research shows what is called a negative promoter score for Flemish people about Flanders. The Flemish do not praise their region in contacts with people from other regions.
Contact with travellers can change that. The stranger's astonishment helps local residents to look at their place with new eyes. This in turn helps to strengthen the travel experience of visitors. Or how becoming aware of the place where you are rooted can become a gift for people who stay there temporarily.
Discover and share love for your place
That process starts locally, Peter thinks. Everyone has a home, a benchmark: a place where you have received enough positive stimuli to connect with them. Link that to identity and connection with a place and / or community, and there is a positive force. That is why I think we should pay attention to strengthening the local tissue. Through a sincere recognition of the local entrepreneurial forces we can drive tourism of the future, I think.
As an inspiring example, Peter mentions Sihame El Kaouakibi from Let's Go Urban. She wants to connect enterprising young people with historical creative entrepreneurship in Antwerp. Her idea of making the Jordaenshuis a home base inspires him. As a government, we can consciously think about how we can help people connect with their places, and how we can tap into the positive energy that then arises.
That is about love, I notice. Yes, Peter agrees: the love we feel for something - a place, an important value, a dream for the future - generates an energy that makes things possible and progresses.
The place, the home, your roots: the theme raises more than once in this conversation. It keeps this man remarkably busy. He talks about his journey through Flanders as chairman of the Davidsfonds. 'Know the place where you live', he gave that message in his speeches to volunteers and members of local departments. Explore your roots, rediscover the beauty, create a 'home' together and share it - with genuine pride - with visitors. It is not necessary to sit on our high horse. That is not in our national character. Hospitality, on the other hand, and we can develop it even further.
In keeping with that thinking Peter has introduced the idea of temporary citizenship. It would be nice if travellers in our communities were received as citizens. If you start from the question of how you make that possible, you will approach tourism much more broadly. Then, for example, as a local community, you will make efforts to open up what is going on locally for travellers. Then you really want to meet and meet them at fairs, events, meetings and experiences. Then you want local residents and visitors to experience things together.
In this context, initiatives such as Den Antwerpenaar, a platform with what can be done and experienced by Antwerp residents, can also become important in the tourist landscape. It is one example of countless new initiatives that will be welcomed when the insights from the Tourism Transformation route lead to new actions.
From think tank to action lab
Are there things from the thinking process that are already starting to take root in practice, I ask. I see Peter doubt, his words weigh and weigh. Yes, he says. Everything is growing, but that movement may be a little early to mention names and concrete projects. The seeds are too young to be put in full daylight. He sees local authorities who think their city or municipality is an attractive place. They want to encourage local entrepreneurship among residents and at the same time ask themselves: why shouldn’t we do this ourselves? And he sees regions - some still carefully scrutinizing, others with more vigorous research into their tourist potential and design with residents, local entrepreneurs and civil society.
Peter: Bazel, the village where he is at home, is close to his own place. He is impressed with great, local initiatives, such as an annual party where residents celebrate the end of the holiday together. Intriguing idea: It is very successful, without being pushed by any government. On the contrary: the government withdraws and seeks ways to support instead of doing it itself. Things like this keep my thinking going about the future role of the government, which we, as Tourism Flanders, are also an instrument of.
Instead of steering from above, it comes down to seeing what is going on in the field, and discovering how a government agency like Tourism Flanders can support and reinforce that.
Peter: We are not necessarily looking for a new big flagship. A strong fleet consists of a diversity of many ships that each set their sails to the wind that takes them on their own course.
Peter hopes to be able to show with verve in the coming year what is being built up from the foundations. In the meantime our search has already been noticed in other countries. 'I notice that I have a lot of fun and often talk about it at international meetings. And I can proudly say that internationally there is a lot of interest and appreciation for the apparently quite unique path that we are taking here.'
Closer to home, in the Flemish tourism sector, an important moment is on the agenda immediately after the summer holidays. During a two-day think tank, committed people will jointly describe the insights and ideas for the future that surfaced during the process.
Peter: It is now a matter of facilitating the writing process in the same spirit as that which made the thought process possible up to now. That our searching attitude remains intact, and does not lapse into a play of forces of interests. That, as far as I am concerned, is also part of the transformative movement that we have initiated.
Does this mean a new role for the government?
The director of Tourism Flanders makes it a point to continue the resulting transformative élan. And that means, among other things, to continue to facilitate the process, to be of service to what is needed and to make room. Making space sometimes means: getting out of the way.
Peter: I regularly see enterprising people working with full enthusiasm to get new ideas off the ground. Often they drag the burden of an over-regulating government as if it were a stone tied to leg. If you think about it carefully, you understand that: regulations often arise to protect the status quo, and in a time of transformation it sometimes works counterproductively. I give an example. This morning I met the initiator of Slow Cabins, places where nature can stop and slow down. In itself a great initiative that can give residential tourism an unprecedented dimension. That man would almost give up the courage because of the complexity of regulations at the Flemish level, while his initiative is a gift for tourism in Flanders. It is not pleasant to admit, but indeed: The Flemish government - of which we are a part - excels in regulitis.
We have already simplified a lot of regulations. The Accommodation Decree is an example of this. But a lot of work can still be done. Not only in our own sector, but everywhere where regulations intersect, sometimes counteract and make initiatives with promising added value difficult or totally impossible.
Building partnerships between citizens and government
Less and smarter rules, and more coaching and support: that's where a government can make a difference today, according to Peter De Wilde. Making a top-down approach to policy is no longer of this time, says Peter. There must be a bottom-up approach. And we, employees of an agency of the Flemish government, can be the bridge/connector where these two movements and their sincere intentions meet.
A government agency such as Tourism Flanders must learn to listen carefully to what people want to achieve and what they need, according to Peter De Wilde. It is the challenge as a government to regain contact with the public and reach out to them. Together we can conduct the debate about what citizens expect from a government and on which they want to organise themselves. For me, as leading a specialised government agency, I see as a future fundamental role: inspiring, connecting and facilitating.
Towards a tourism that is rooted in the soul of Flanders
What the future of tourism and, by extension the residential quality of our local living environments, needs is an attractive vision of the future, according to Peter. An image in which active citizens and initiators in the sector recognise themselves and can commit themselves. According to him, that will only succeed if it is closely linked to how people experience their identity and their hope.
Peter: We, the Flemings think it is important to feel connected to a home, a place, a local community. We still find the church tower and the square important: because there is the café, the parish hall or the community center. There the community meets each other. There were stories that settled as memories in our identity. We have to respect and reinforce that, says Peter. And we will not live up to that if we drop hip ideas from above. He mentions the re-use of our increasingly empty churches as an example. Rapid reallocations from the dreams of some direct stakeholders is not what we have to go for, I think. It is a lot more sustainable to find out with all those involved how these places can be of significance for the local population and visitors. Only then can the church tower continue to fulfill its role, a role that fits in with what residents find important and where their identity and sense of place and home are intertwined.
Peter: The same applies to the future of tourism. We have not just chosen the name Tourism Transforms. Transformation says something about the process: something gets moving, so changes are given a new shape. It is precisely that process that we are talking about now, together with everyone who wants to be involved. That movement is new, and yet not. looking back, actions and issues from the past once again become meaningful.
Peter: If you consider what we have been doing at Tourism Flanders in recent years, I see that we have been laying puzzle pieces for quite some time now. Since we have given that search a name and a trajectory, we have now also found the box of the puzzle. Now we can finally see which puzzle we are laying on exactly.
For more information on the listening project: Source: report on large-scale listening research 'In search of the power of travel', July 2018.