Belgians open their gardens to travellers for a lockdown-proof summer

Belgians open their gardens to travellers for a lockdown-proof summer
Credit: Welcome to My Garden

A Brussels-based biking enthusiast has come up with an alternative holiday destination for those looking to travel locally during a summer rife with coronavirus uncertainties: other people’s gardens.

Welcome to My Garden, an online platform launched by 28-year-old Dries Van Ransbeeck, aims to connect locals with ‘slow travellers’ (hikers and cyclists) moving through the country this summer and looking for a place to pitch a tent.

“The idea is for locals to put their gardens at the disposal of slow travellers for a maximum camping stay of 48 hours,” Van Ransbeeck said, adding that his project aimed to contribute to a different way of travelling in Belgium.

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Fresh from a 13,500-kilometre cycling trip from Brussels to Tokyo last summer, Van Ransbeeck said the idea dawned on him as he mulled over lockdown-proof alternatives to spend his summer holidays in the country.

“During the lockdown, I was thinking of how I could prepare my own summer holidays in Belgium. I wanted to avoid busy places, and wild camping is forbidden in Belgium… so after some thinking, I thought: why not someone’s garden?”

Since its launch at the beginning of May, the platform has seen growing success, with more than 900 homeowners in all corners of Belgium opening up their homes to visiting campers.

Credit: Welcome to My Garden

“At the beginning, I thought I would be lucky if I could find some 30 or 40 people crazy enough to want to take part in the project,” Van Ransbeeck said. “But it quickly got out of hand.”

The project is also gaining traction beyond Belgium’s borders, as homeowners in Germany and the Netherlands also jump on board.

Van Ransbeek said that the growing network of hosts on the platform ranged from young people and families to retirees, all of whom joined the initiative for widely different reasons.

“Some people participate because they really want to give back to society, some because they want to meet new people, others want to hear new stories, have new experiences…” he said. “So it’s really exciting because you don’t know who you’re going to meet.

In a test of his own platform, Van Ransbeek pitched a tent in a tiny meadow in the home of a 70-year-old woman in Bouillon, a small Walloon town with a rich medieval history right on the border with France.

“She had a lot of hiking experience she was glad to share with us, she told us more about the region, offered us a beer from the area… it was a very nice experience and she was really enthusiastic about the platform,” he said.

Around a dozen volunteers have joined Van Ransbeek to keep the online community of garden campers running smoothly. As it continues to grow, Van Ransbeek said that the idea was to “keep things simple” and focus on keeping encounters and “slow travel.”

“We currently have no review system, we don’t think we want to go in that direction because then it becomes about reviews and ratings,” he said, rejecting some comparisons in the media to booking website Airbnb. “We would rather remain a platform who connects people together, bringing in ratings means encounters are no longer the backbone of our initiative.”

By having hosts from all across Belgium welcome travellers, the platform also hopes to help users find corners of Belgium which would otherwise remain undiscovered.

“What I really see as a big opportunity with this project is that we can change the way people travel in their own country,” he said. “Covid-19 maybe led many to cancel travel plans abroad, with this, we hope to provide an exciting and adventurous alternative.”

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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