The Westhoek welcomed nearly 515,000 remembrance tourists in 2017. The Westtoer knowledge centre has calculated that this is a 15% increase compared to the relatively quiet year of 2016 and a 3% increase compared to the busy year of 2015. Franky De Block, member of the Provincial Executive and president of Westtoer, said: “The intensive communication and numerous events for British, Irish, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand visitors further strengthened the international character of remembrance tourism in the Westhoek area in 2017. But visitors from Flanders and in particular from Flemish schools also continued to find their way to the World War I heritage in our region.”
Since the start of the commemoration in 2014, nearly 2.3 million people have visited the World War I heritage in this region.
Strong international interest
In 2017, the focus was on the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Messines (from 7 to 14 June) and the Battle of Passchendaele (from 31 July to 10 November). People from different nationalities paid tribute to those who fought in these battles, and the culminating events were the commemorations in Ypres on 30 July and in Zonnebeke on 31 July. The exhibition project ‘1917. Total War in Flanders’ contextualised these commemorations with six exhibitions and various information modules on different locations in the Westhoek area. Toerisme Vlaanderen, which promotes the Flemish tourism industry in the principal visitor countries, also invested in ‘Passchendaele’ with remarkable actions such as the ‘Mud Soldier’ on Trafalgar Square in London and a street art action in Melbourne, Australia.
The strong international character of last year's events were reflected in an increase of the number of foreign visitors, not just compared to 2016 (+13%) but also compared to 2015 (+7%), the latter year also being of significant international importance. The market share of foreign visitors to the Westhoek area is large (56%).
The largest share of foreign World War I visitors came from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (accounting for 34% and 9% respectively). In 2017, the number of British visitors increased by 12% compared to 2016 and by 4% compared to 2015. Especially the number of individual visitors and day visitors from Britain rose. The Dutch market grew by 3% in 2017 compared to the previous year. The number of Dutch day visitors to the Westhoek area increased significantly.
In 2017, Canada overtook Australia as the biggest distant market. Together with the United States and New Zealand, these four markets already had a considerable market share, but it continued to grow in 2017 (+40% versus 2016 and +18% versus 2015). The number of Canadians who visited the World War I heritage in 2017 more than doubled (totalling approximately 15,000 visitors).
Also noteworthy is the strong presence of the Irish market in 2017 (with approximately 6,000 visitors). The Battle of Messines from 1917 is of particular symbolic value for the Irish.
“These figures are good news for the international efforts made by Toerisme Vlaanderen and its partners,” according to project leader Lea Winkeler from Toerisme Vlaanderen. “The objectives we have set for the entire remembrance period have nearly been attained already. Of course, this does not mean that we should stop now – we will maintain the momentum of the previous years, even after 2018. The Great War is part of the DNA of our tourist destination. We share this heritage with many countries and we will continue to take care of it in the future. We do so not just because of the boost visitors give to the local economy, but also and especially because of the personal and social value of the experiences sought by all these people in Flanders.”
A great deal of interest in Belgium
The internal market accounted for a market share of 44% in 2017. Most Belgian visitors to World War I heritage in the Westhoek area come from Flanders (93%). Compared to 2016, the market share of Belgian visitors to the Westhoek area grew by 17% (it remained virtually stable compared to 2015). The varied range of exhibitions and unique commemorative ceremonies resulted in an increase of mostly individual visitors (+20%). The number of school groups rose as well (+25%).
Franky De Block, member of the Provincial Executive and president of Westtoer, said: “The interest of Flemish schools in our regional World War I heritage is growing again. This means there is reason to be hopeful after the decline in 2016. After all, the Westhoek area’s tangible history also has a major role to play in terms of peace education for young people after 2018.”
As in the case of foreign visitors, we note an increase in the number of Belgian day visitors and visitors staying outside the region (especially on the Belgian coast or in Bruges).
Outlook for 2018
The final year of the remembrance period will again be exceptional. The land art installation on the provincial domain De Palingbeek will be given a central role in 2018 within the scope of the ComingWorldRememberMe project. In addition, several unique exhibitions and commemorative events have been planned and 11 November 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany.
The Westtoer knowledge centre monitors the number of remembrance tourists visiting the Westhoek area in partnership with Toerisme Vlaanderen. Within this scope, Westtoer makes use of the figures provided by six museums and four cemeteries in the Westhoek area: the In Flanders Fields Museum, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, Talbot House, Museum aan de IJzer, Dodengang and the Bayernwald Trenches, Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek Cemetery and the German cemeteries in Langemark and Vladslo. Since 2014, visitors to the Westfront visitor centre in Nieuwpoort have been counted as well.