The Flemish government plans to invest €75m on tourism projects aimed at providing tourists with destination services “better adapted to their needs”. One of the types of programmes Toerisme Vlaanderen has in mind relates the more rural, green regions such as Limburg in the east of Belgium.
There are big plans for tourism in the region, as Igor Philtjens, chairman of Toerisme Limburg explains, “For Limburg, tourism has great economic growth potential thanks to its competitive advantages, which include the availability of space, nature, labour force and its central geographical location. We aim to develop our cycling paradise, building new attractions such as cycling trough the water, through the caves and in the air, with a cycling path right through the trees. The goal is to make our cycling network a car-free network. We have plans to further develop and connect the mining heritage, reinforce our attractions and make our landscapes more accessible in an experiential way.”
Tourism minister Ben Weyts’ new plan also involves launching a new set of strategies that “bring added value to society, the economy and business.”
The extra subsidy, he says, will be distributed to projects that meet one of the new strategies, one of which is to “stress and reinforce” the drawing power of existing destinations.
These “leverage strategies” would, says Weyts, increase the region’s name recognition internationally, a notion that is certainly welcomed by Paolo Pavan, the new general manager of Al Mulino, which is set in a historic renovated windmill, “De Stormvogel” (Albatross in English) just outside Maasmechelen.
He firmly believes it is better to “internationalise” the government’s tourism efforts in order to extend interest in the region far beyond its Benelux and German heartland.
One key aim of the new tourism initiative is to better promote some of the region’s less well known attributes such as the windmill, dating back to 1858, which Al Mulino, a hotel and restaurant, is built around.
The windmill has been listed and classed as a national monument of Belgium since 1964.
However, it has had something of a chequered history and fell into serious disrepair until current owners Robert Bemelmans and Liliana Carlisi took it over.
That in itself is a nice story because the couple live opposite the windmill and Roberto for years dreamt of buying it and converting the badly rundown building to its former glory.
And that is where the federal government stepped in to help, in the form of a subsidy that covered 80 percent of the €500,000 cost of renovating the windmill.
Roberto and Liliana then set about the three-year task of constructing the hotel and restaurant. The result is a beautifully restored national monument and splendid 14-room hotel, which since opening in 2011 at a cost of some €2.5m, has become so popular that it is already taking bookings for next summer.
De Stormvogel, centrepiece of the complex, was built by miller Pieter Eyckelberg, is an English design and retains all the original beams. As it has special listing status, the owners are responsible for ensuring that is constantly kept in good working order. Boasting the original beams, is still fully functioning and open for tours to visitors free of charge.
It is historic sites such as this that Toerisme Vlaanderen seeks to exploit to the full and, indeed, the hotel makes for an excellent base for exploring Limburg, said to be home to the three best wines produced in Belgium and the province with the highest average temperature.
Modern, bordering on the minimalist, the hotel still remains cosy and welcoming and also boasts a gastronomic restaurant. The well-appointed spacious rooms have flat screen cable TV and situated almost underneath the windmill.
Even though it’s located less than 10 minutes’ off the E314 motorway to Brussels, the hotel, which also boasts a gastronomic restaurant, is known as a haven for peace and quiet in what is Belgium’s greenest province and home to Hoge Kempen, the national park of Belgium.
Whatever your nationality you’re likely to feel at home here as it has a Italian/Belgian owners and a Flemish chef plus Greek and Dutch staff.
Indeed, some 85 per cent of its weekday guests are from overseas, benefiting from its extensive amenities including high speed internet in all rooms.
Records show there has actually been a windmill on site since way back in 1616 and, aside from De Stormvogel the immediate surrounding area has something for everyone, ranging from a 2,000km cycling routes, Rekem, voted the “most beautiful village” in Flanders to the country’s oldest city (Tongeren) and the famous Massmechelen Village which attracted nearly 3m visitors last year. Guests at Al Mulino benefit from a VIP invitation to the famous retail shopping outlet. If you want to further a bit further, the lovely Dutch city of Maastricht is a mere 15 minutes’ drive away while, for the more energetic, bikes can be hired from the hotel for the nearby cycling network.
While its working mines have long since vanished, the area also has a particularly rich industrial mining heritage, something else the Toerisme Vlaanderen initiative will seek to capitalise on in the new campaign.
Other top local attractions also include Cosmodrome, an excellent education centre which offers breathtaking audiovisual shows about the cosmos, Molenheide, one of the country’s leading vacation parks where kids can enjoy all manner of water-based activities as well as a fine, award-winning indoor playground, and Karting Genk, the only outdoor race track of its kind in the country where current Belgian F1 star Max Verstappen started out.
Having worked at hotels all over the world, the lovingly restored De Stormvogel and Al Mulino are the principle reason that enticed Italian-born Paolo back into the horeca sector after a spell away.
While he welcomes the efforts being made by Toerisme Vlaanderen he also feels the campaign needs to be pitched at an international audience in order to promote the many wonderful things on offer in Limburg to a wider audience.
“Yes, this is significant investment and a good idea,” he says, before adding, “but has to be carefully targeted at the right audience and market.”
By Martin Banks