2020 will be a year many will want to forget. The shock to the economy and freedom of movement, the lack of face-to-face social interaction will nonetheless remain imprinted in our minds. This year, the tourism and cultural sectors have been hit by the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of contagion. Professionals in both industries have faced difficulties to exercise their activities as well as to stay afloat financially, in Europe and all over the world. Tourism fosters understanding between cultures, it builds bridges; art helps us understand the challenges we face in the twenty first century. How can we support them? In the City of Brussels, several measures have been put in place to help alleviate the effects of the pandemic in these crucial sectors.
Delphine Houba is the Alderwoman of Culture, Tourism and Big Events in the City of Brussels. A champion of culture and arts in the capital of Europe, she’s a lover of music, reading and visiting exhibitions. She was born in Brussels and has spent several years of her life in the Yser and Sainte-Catherine quarters. She has a degree in political science from the ULB, with a specialization in the field of international relations. Concerned with a balance between work and personal life, she has co-authored of a book about the four-day work week and the collective reduction of working time. She was a Council member of the Public Welfare Centre for two years, and since the end of 2017, she serves as the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Brugmann Hospital.
With 2020 reaching an end, Delphine Houba speaks with Travel Tomorrow about the challenges affecting the hospitality sector, how the culture sector is being kept alive in Brussels, sustainability in tourism, the outlook for 2021, and more.
1. What have been the effects of the pandemic across the different sectors of the economy in the City of Brussels (i.e. unemployment, psychological such as depression, domestic violence)? What measures has the Commune taken to help alleviate the impact so far?
My approach has always been the following: we must continue to sell Brussels as a destination and as a place of experiences and discoveries, including heritage and culture. And to come to Brussels is also to meet its inhabitants, the people of Brussels. Brussels is a lively city, where there is a lot going on, where there is something for everyone and where the hardest part is choosing!
This requires a whole ecosystem: efficient means of transport accessible to all tourist profiles, quality accommodation, cultural places, events, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, meeting places, parks and gardens, etc. Each of these elements plays a fundamental role in this ecosystem, which must be supported to get through the (health) crisis and remain fully functional, in other words, be ready for the return of tourists to Brussels.
And culture is central to this: it contributes both to the city’s influence and to the development of its inhabitants. This is why the City of Brussels has always had an ambitious budget dedicated to culture. Because of its history and its status as the capital of Belgium but also of Europe, the City of Brussels is a major player in the cultural life of Brussels, Belgium, Europe and the world.
The City hosts many quality cultural institutions on its territory: museums, concert halls, theaters, art schools, cultural centers, cinemas, exhibition halls, art centers, galleries, etc. The languages spoken in our country are an asset compared to the neighboring countries, from which the majority of tourists visiting our city come.
Culture will remain more than ever a priority for the City of Brussels, with the dual ambition of promoting its appropriation by the entire population and contributing to the national and international influence of Brussels. To achieve this, the City is improving access to culture, reinforcing cultural infrastructures, redeploying and renovating the City’s museums, optimizating partnerships and transversal services, and, finally, promoting all cultures and the diversity that is the DNA of our city.
I also have ambitious projects concerning the place of women in culture (as an audience, as artists, as technicians, as guides, etc.) and the sustainability of our events (protection of the environment, fight against harassment, etc.). Brussels is a City-Region in which everyone should feel good, including women and LGBTQI+ people. It is essential to pay special attention to these audiences, whether they live in Brussels or visit it (image, sense of security, etc.).
When we look at the tourism angle, the City has proven, for more than 20 years, its ability to create events that are both popular and attractive. Both for the inhabitants of Brussels and Belgians —who have re-appropriated their capital— and for the increasing number of foreign visitors to the city.
The attendance figures measured before the current health crisis bear witness to this. There has been an increase in both business and leisure tourism. Brussels’ reputation as a city on the move has been growing steadily. The year 2019 was the year of all records in terms of overnight stays (9.4 million). The Grand Départ of the Tour de France was a major event that put Brussels on the world map and spread images of our beautiful capital around the world.
Tourism and events activity is a major challenge for a metropolis, particularly through its role as a lever in terms of economy and employment, especially in the hospitality (HORECA) sector. And I insist on the fact that it is a non-relocatable job. These are families who live thanks to the dynamism of the sector and who, in turn, support the Brussels economy.
If the City of Brussels wants to maintain its attractiveness, this influence must obviously benefit everyone, because the attractiveness or liveliness of the City must take into account the habitability of its neighborhoods. The City cannot be transformed into a tourist village at the expense of its inhabitants. This is a fundamental balance at the heart of the City of Brussels’ tourism policy.
This is why sustainability is a major political priority: how can we ensure that tourists coming to Brussels use the train rather than the plane? This is a real challenge. A night train line has just been opened between Brussels and Vienna. This is a fundamental axis to be supported and further developed.
2. In particular, what has been the impact on the travel and tourism sector? How have hotels, restaurants, museums, and convention centers adapted their business models to tackle the drop in international tourism? Has there been a surge in local tourism?
We have maintained all of our operating subsidies allocated to the City’s cultural venues, and we have provided tailored support for cancelled events. A great deal of work was done to support each project leader to ensure that the event could go ahead. It is important to ensure that events like the Ommegang, unfortunately cancelled in 2020, can be held in 2021 (if all goes well). This means making sure that behind the event, the structure is sufficiently armed to deal with the costs: staff, premises, expenses incurred prior to the cancellation of the event, etc.
In addition to this, the City of Brussels, through its Culture Department, has provided financial support for innovative projects based on proposals from actors in the field during (and after) the confinement. Dozens of projects have thus been financially supported: production of video capsules “Bruxelles Ma Belle” to highlight emerging artists in the City’s cultural venues, launch of a YouTube video platform dedicated to hospitalized children (“Tagad’Art Soin Soin! “), assistance in the creation of a Night Federation (which brings together and protects those involved in nightlife and clubbing), not forgetting virtual visits to museums, a grant to the non-profit organization Arkadia to support the profession of tourist guide, the organization of the first digital edition of Balkan Trafik! and the creation of a giant fresco to thank the hospital staff.
At the end of the confinement, an extraordinary budget of 150,000 euros was released to help the sector directly, through artist (and technician) residencies and the realization of projects in our cultural places. The first idea was above all to offer help to those hit by the crisis. This is direct, concrete and immediate financial aid. This initiative was inspired by the measures taken by American President Roosevelt in the 1930s, in the midst of the global crisis. A sort of New Deal à la bruxelloise!
During the summer, the City also wanted to be proactive and proactive by offering a rich, adventurous and multidisciplinary program – despite the constantly changing health context and event protocols. The objective was to support artists, technicians and also food-trucks. In strict compliance with health procedures, the City Council therefore organized cultural activities in the center (Vaux-Hall, Cité administrative) and in the neighborhoods (Laeken, Neder-over-Hembeek, Square Ambiorix). Activities were also organized in the museums to encourage the public to visit them again (Maison du Roi, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Sewer Museum).
An original initiative has been set up to support both the cultural sector and the HORECA sector through the “Enjoy the City” project. As the cultural venues are closed but the terraces are open, the City has set up cultural activities in the shopping areas to liven up the terraces and avoid causing gatherings (e.g. mobile performances on the pedestrian). In total, this action supported 625 artists, 21 organizations, 100 job seekers and 20 technicians. During 45 days, 186 appointments were proposed in 37 different locations.
Finally, as we approach the end of this very difficult year for the cultural sector, I decided to release an additional 150,000 EUR in support of artistic creation and cultural mediation. A lot of new cultural projects will therefore be launched before the spring of 2021, and other artists and technicians will be paid for their creative work and technical support.
In the field of tourism: In addition to all the actions that the City supports financially within Visit Brussels (the regional tool in charge of promoting tourism), and other measures taken at the local level (such as deferral of charges or exemptions from taxes, rents, closure bonuses, etc.), other initiatives have been undertaken such as supporting guides, who have been badly affected by a drop in activity since the beginning of the pandemic. I have proposed that an operating subsidy of 15,000 euros be given to the non-profit organization ARKADIA. This budget was used to help the association’s operations, and this to offset part of the losses related to Covid-19 (cancellation of guided tours for almost 4 months).
I also released an exceptional subsidy to businesses linked to the world of nightlife, in the form of direct aid to the Federation of the Night. The Federation, whose creation process began in December 2019, brings together to date nearly 250 professional nightlife players, whether owners of nightclubs, bars, etc., B2C event organizers or owners of concert halls. Thanks to all these support and recovery actions, more than 1,000 cultural and event workers have been paid during the crisis.
3. Sustainability. On Instagram you posed an image inviting citizens to be aware of the waste they generate? How is Brussels converting “Cero Waste” from an ideal into a reality? In practical terms: how can citizens adapt this way of living when buying groceries?
It is obvious to me that the success of a destination also depends on its sustainability. For several years now, the City of Brussels has been developing initiatives that are included in its “Agenda 21”, its “Climate Plan” and its “Municipal Sustainable Development Plan”. We are therefore setting up events that address sustainability in its three dimensions: environmental, social and economic. An eco-advisory unit has been set up to make the city’s events more sustainable, whether we are talking about logistics (generalization of dry toilets for the first time in 2020, sorting islands for the public and for businesses. 2020 also marks the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the reusable cup at our events: as a reminder, its use avoids at least two and a half tons of single-use plastic waste per year!
4. In Brussels, museums re-opened in early December. What are the initial results from this initiative? Is the public visiting the museums? How different is the experience?
It is difficult to make an assessment in such a short time, but our museums (the King’s House, the Fashion & Lace Museum, the Manneken Pis Cupboard, the Sewer Museum, the CENTRALE for contemporary art and the Design Museum Brussels) are obviously experiencing a drop in attendance due to the current health situation. But the public, local, Belgian above all, is taking advantage of the situation to come and discover or rediscover our museum heritage. This crisis represents an opportunity to go back to basics, to go and see what’s going on close to home, to visit cultural places that we are no longer used to considering because they have always been there. I therefore appeal to the people of Brussels, to Belgians and to expatriates: this is the time to come and visit our exhibitions, our museums, our collections, the sector needs everyone to get over this crisis.
5. Twitter campaign #mywinterlights. Could you tells more about this campaign? What social effect is the City of Brussels trying to generate among citizens during this unusual holiday season?
This year, for health and safety reasons, the Christmas market was cancelled, but the visual elements such as the tree in the Grand Place and the illumination of 142 shopping streets through the “Brussels by Lights” campaign were maintained. And in this desire to bring comfort and magic to the people of Brussels, hospitals and rest homes were also decorated with illuminations. It was essential for me to send a message of support to the nursing staff, patients and residents of our institutions.
6. In your opinion, what is the outlook for the tourism sector in 2021? Will there be a change in the way we travel?
According to the epidemiological forecasts of the experts, I believe that 2021, at least its first half year, will be very similar to 2020 for the tourism sector in Belgium and worldwide. Between now and then we will have to continue to manage the many factors inherent to this epidemic (compliance with health regulations, changes in protocols, etc.). Since the beginning of the crisis, it has always been my wish that culture and tourism should not have to wait for a vaccine to go on. Brussels needs to live, culture needs to live.
The City actively collaborates with Visit Brussels, and I have the opportunity to regularly follow the missions and actions deployed by the regional tourist office. Among the elements to be explored in the coming months, I am thinking, for example, of the extension of funds to support the sector (allowing the purchase of gel and masks for cultural places, for example) or their adaptation (for example to help cultural and tourist places cope with the additional expenditure in terms of staff to manage flows, placing the public in rooms, welcoming and monitoring compliance with health measures, etc.).
7. What will happen to the Travel & Tourism sector in Brussels in the short to mid term? Will businesses survive until people can get vaccinated and travel without concerns of infection and/or quarantine periods? How?
It is still early to be able to draw all the conclusions from this crisis and the effects on the tourism ecosystem in the medium and long term. And to measure the impact of the policies deployed during this crisis. In any case, I think I can say that we have been working hard since March to help the sector as much as we can, within our means. When we take stock of what has been put in place since the start of the health crisis, it is certain that such a deployment of means and energy requires maximum effort and agility for the teams working in the field. We have had to constantly rethink our actions and reinvent ourselves.
I believe that the public authorities will have to continue to support the various sectors most affected by the crisis by redoubling their efforts but also their ingenuity. The players in the cultural and tourism sector will also have to work on their ability to adapt to this crisis, the repercussions of which will be felt for some time to come. I will obviously be there to support their initiatives in this regard.
I aspire to a more local and sustainable tourism in the years to come. The City of Brussels and the Region, via the Visit Brussels tool, are preparing, in collaboration with all the players in the field, a major recovery plan for 2021: there will be more decentralized activities, more sustainability in the offer, in other words more quality and less quantity. We will have to be patient because we will probably not immediately return to the level of tourist activity that we knew in 2019, but I can assure you that we are already deploying all possible levers so that Brussels can regain its international position as a city of congresses and leisure. So that the whole world can eventually come and discover or rediscover what makes our city and its inhabitants so rich.