Francoise Haffreingue, Executive Manager, Belgian tourist office, Brussels Wallonia

Francoise Haffreingue – Executive Manager, Belgian tourist office, Brussels Wallonia

Francoise Haffreingue, Executive Manager, Belgian tourist office, Brussels WalloniaWith spring just around the corner, you can be sure Belgium is in full bloom, ready to welcome Canadians following a long winter season. But other than its mouthwatering waffles and delicious beer, what do we really know about this tiny European nation? Why should travellers consider Belgium among all other destinations in 2016? We asked Francoise Haffreingue, who represents the cities of Brussels and Wallonia in southern Belgium, what makes Belgium so wonderfully enticing this year.

1) How many tourists visited Belgium in 2015? Of that, how many were Canadian?

I don’t have 2015 figures, unfortunately, but 7.8 million tourists visited Belgium in 2014, 59,000 of which were Canadian. The number of arrivals went up 5% between 2013 and 2014.

2) Tell us about the #BrusselsLockdown campaign that immediately followed the Paris terror attacks last year. How did the Belgian Tourist Office-Brussels Wallonia get involved?

Last November, when authorities requested that Belgians refrain from posting messages that might expose or interfere with police operation, residents and visitors decided to respond with what will now be known as an internationally recognized symbol of solidarity: cat pictures. Twitter was flooded with funny cat photos.

A few days later, the three regional tourist offices wanted to show their support for the capital of Belgium and to the people in Brussels by producing a 20-second surreal video ode to Brussels. It shows the resilience, the strength and sense of humour of Belgians, which was still able to shine through in the face of adversity.

The marketing campaign #CallBrussels was another way in which support was shown. Using their best ambassadors, the Brussels natives answered calls from all around the world to paint a more accurate picture of what was actually happening in the capital. Three yellow outdoor telephone booths were set up across the city. More than 12,000 people from 154 countries called in, making this campaign a real success.

3) What is Belgium most known for? And what’s one thing travellers don’t know about it?

Beers, chocolate and waffles are the first things that come to mind when you think of Belgium. However, travellers to Brussels will be astonished by the innovative and vibrant feeling that the city has with its new museums, exciting exhibitions at an international level, and booming contemporary art scene.

The lesser known region of Wallonia will be just as delightfully surprising to travellers. The area is bursting at the seams with medieval fortresses and citadels, monasteries and abbeys, and residential castles located in outstanding settings and breathtaking landscapes. A promenade in the garden of a castle has never been so easy!

4) When is the best time to visit Belgium, and why?

There is never a bad time to visit Belgium, it is always a good time to pop over for a visit! In the winter, Belgium is a magical, charming place filled with Christmas cheer and fun holiday markets where you can buy the perfect gift for that special someone. In the summer, spring and fall, there is still plenty of charm and better weather. Every town has its local specialties that are well worth the trip. You can immerse yourself at any time in the culture, whether it’s by participating in a carnival or a parade. You will never feel left out.

5) What’s new for Belgium in 2016?

In Brussels, the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA) is opening on March 24. This exciting new museum focuses on contemporary art, including urban art, street art and graphic design, and has already been receiving attention from the press. The collection will be housed in an old brewery on the Brussels Canal. mimamuseum.eu/.

Tangla Hotel and Resorts is opening its first hotel in Europe in Brussels in June 2016. The Tangla Brussels will feature a gastronomic Chinese restaurant, an all-dining restaurant, a bar lounge, seven meeting rooms, a karaoke room and a spa with swimming pool. tanglabrussels.com/.

In Liege (one of the cities to visit in 2016 according to ‘Travel+Leisure and the Globe and Mail), the Boverie – the new Modern and Contemporary museum – will open on May 5. It’s located in the renovated Palais des Beaux Arts, a building inspired by the Petit Trianon of Versailles and built in 1903 for the Universal Expo in Liege. The Boverie will feature international exhibitions, some of them in partnership with the Louvre Museum.

In Namur, Generation – the food movement started by Walloon chefs – will be having its first food festival from June 3-7. The festival will be a celebration of the tenets of Generation W, its focus on local products and mentorship. However, this is not a Walloon only event. Chefs from all over Europe have been invited to participate. This sumptuous food celebration is in an equally rich setting – the impressive Citadel of Namur – which has hosted many events before. For more, go to generationw.be.