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Belgium, Tourism Growth encourages national unity

Belgium is not a very hilly country, and yet it had to climb a mountain to avoid splitting in two. Today its good results in terms of tourist arrivals allow the flat country to post growth in the hotel sector in its three regions: Brussels-Capital, Flanders and Wallonia, which is currently hosting the event “European Capital of Culture” in Mons. Some Belgian hospitality professionals hope to see a sign from politicians so that the industry will receive support in light of the high costs and increasing competition from Internet’s pure-players like Airbnb.

Belgian tourism progresses on all levels. In 2013, Belgium welcomed 14.1 million visitors for 31.4 million nights in all types of accommodations. Among these, 18 million nights were realized in Belgium's hotels, with 11.6 million foreign nights. The primary source markets are Dutch (4.2 million nights), French (2.4 million), German and travelers from the United Kingdom (1.9 million each). 51% of foreign nights were realized in the Dutch speaking region, 33% in Brussels-Capital and 16% in Wallonia. Flemish hegemony is all the more important if we take into consideration B&Bs and camping sites. From this point of view, it would include 60% of Belgian nights while Brussels-Capital -which has a very limited outdoor accommodations offer- finds itself neck-in-neck with Wallonia. Brussels-Capital, which represented 5.9 million hotel nights in 2013, hopes to reach ten million in 2020 according to the BHA, the hoteliers association of Brussels-Capital, which regroups 85% of properties in its region. The Flemish tourist office estimates that the capital increased its number of nights by 7.7% on a like-for-like basis on the first ten months of the years 2013 and 2014 (figures for end 2014 have not yet been reported). On the same period, it observed an 11.8% increase in nights in Wallonia and a 6.8% increase in Flanders. Moreover, the arrival of tourists from Southern Europe has increased considerably: +28% for Greece, +19% for Portugal, +14% Italy, +12.5% for Spain, comparing the periods of the first ten months of the years 2013 and 2014. As usual, arrivals of European clientele in Belgium vary according to the economic context of the countries concerned, making the Belgian market (and that of Brussels in particular) a reflection of the European context overall. And yet, arrivals are also up from BRIC countries (+26% for India, +25% for Brazil, +8.4% for China) except for Russian clientele (-2.8%), who were less numerous due to the depreciation of the ruble at the end of the year. Finally, there has also been double-digit growth for Americans and Australians.

Brussels' hotels improve their rang

The last tally showed 1,380 hotels and tourism residences in Belgium. 197 are in the area around Brussels, 407 in Wallonia and 776 in Flanders. While the Dutch region has almost twice as many properties with respect to the French speaking region, it only has one five-star hotel, the Duke's Palace in Bruges (110 rooms and suites). On the other hand there are two in the region of Wallonia, the Crowne Plaza in Liège and the Martin's Château at the Lac de Genval. Brussels, which has twelve five-star hotels, should have two new luxury complexes in two years. Scheduled to open in 2016, the Hotel Astoria is a palace on Rue Royale dating from 1909, it was operated under the brand Sofitel a decade or so ago. The walls of the property were bought in 2007 by the group of investors Global Hotels & Resorts, owned by Saudi Sheik Mohammed Youssef El-Khereiji. After long renovation works, the hotel with 146 rooms and suites should reopen next year under the group's emblematic brand Tiara Hotels & Resorts. Another exciting project for the city is the renovation of the church Gésu de Saint-Josse. Loaded with history the convent had been squatted for several years, and will now be transformed into a 75-room luxury complex.

These two new openings could allow Brussels to increase its average daily rate excluding taxes that were down by 1.1% between 2013 and 2014 according to data from MKG Hospitality. The average daily rate fell throughout Belgium with an average of -0.2% for the upscale segment, -0.8% for the midscale and -0.6% for the economy segment. It was nonetheless compensated by an increase in occupancy rate: in Brussels, it went from 71 to 73.1% between 2013 and 2014, allowing the RevPAR to climb 2.4%. Belgian hotel results are thus good, although profitability is impacted by the steady increase in payroll costs, particularly in Brussels: "These increased by 45% in the last ten years. They represent nearly half of the turnover of the hotel sector," declared Sophie Blondel, president of the BHA last January amidst a refusal to increase room rates in the capital. She estimates that competition is getting tougher with accommodation sharing like Airbnb, but also because of the opening up of certain major international cities to business tourism, the spearhead of Brussels' hotel industry. The Belgian capital ranked tenth in Europe and fifteenth internationally among cities that organized important conferences in 2013 with 111 key events according to the ICCA. In particular it saw Buenos Aires and Seoul, two destinations outside Europe, surpass it.

Flemish tourism on a little cloud, Wallonia progresses

After the city of Brussels with its 5.9 million nights in hotels and tourism residences, other cities are attempting to pierce Belgium's hotelscape. Antwerp is positioned second in the country with 1.74 million hotel nights in 2014 (including 1.39 million foreign nights) and 7.8% growth with respect to the previous year. It could allow the Dutch-speaking region to soon reach the benchmark of ten million. Bruges posted 1.5 million hotel nights in 2013 and Ghent 800,000. Liège, meanwhile, surpasses 400,000 hotel nights. To increase its accommodations capacity, the city plans to embrace it offer. Renovations are expected at several properties in the city. The hotel Neuvice will soon triple its number of beds. The former Mercure has become a Pentahotels after six months of works. Finally, the former Holiday Inn, located near the Palais des Congrès, was taken over by the Dutch hotel group Van der Valk. The property will be transformed into a 219-room, four-star hotel. Nonetheless, the property will not open before September 2016.

As far as concerns business tourism, Flanders also holds its own in Europe. After Brussels, the four Belgian cities with the best positioning in the organization of conventions are Dutch speaking according to the ICCA: Ghent (31 events), Louvain (23), Antwerp (19) and Bruges (10). Liège, meanwhile hosted five major events in 2013. Thus, the hotel sector in Flanders necessarily post stronger results. According to MKG Hospitality, properties in Antwerp and Ghent posted occupancies of 78.1 and 79.1%. Liège reached a 66.2% occupancy rate for 2014. And yet, the RevPAR in Liege climbed 10.7% between 2013 and 2014. Wallonia's good performance could also improve in 2015 with expected tourism arrivals in Mons, this years' European Capital of Culture.

Events to boost tourism appeal in the country

In 2015, the entire country will benefit from the spotlight on Mons. Five new museums, a new concert hall and fifteen urban art installations have been installed in the city for the occasion. Further to the great success of the Van Gogh exhibition (100,000 visitors in two months), organizers decided to extend opening hours due to endless waiting lines. An extra hour from Tuesday to Friday and two extra hours on Saturdays and Sundays. "The event could generate 400 million euros in revenues," affirmed Elio di Rupo, former Prime Minister of Belgium who applied for Mons. Hoteliers in Mons may expect positive repercussions on their turnover. Major cities nearby could also benefit. Brussels is just an hour's drive from Mons which suffers from a limited hotel supply: 10 hotels including the Congress Hotel Mons that will open in the spring and bring the total number of rooms to 562. Specialized in hosting business tourists because of its strategic position (European Commission), it is also an opportunity for Brussels to attract leisure clientele.

Of the major athletic events scheduled in the years to come, Belgium may particularly benefit from the Euro 2016 organized in France. Ten matches will be held in Lille and Lens, just an hour and a half away from Brussels, the capital with its strong tourist appeal. Four years later, the city will also host events in the Euro 2020. A new 60,000 seat stadium should replace the aging King Baudouin Stadium and should allow Flemings and Walloons alike to support their team -the "Red Devils"- together. In the meantime, neither of these two regions -nor Brussels- shall complain about getting evil results in terms of tourist arrivals!

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