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Wanted: Brits back in Ypres, say businesses

The Menin Gate, site of the Last Post ceremony. © Toerisme Ieper

Hotel owners in Ypres in West Flanders are today protesting for action to bring British tourists back to the city and revive their ailing sector.

Ypres, known locally (and officially) as Ieper, is a key chapter in British modern history, with thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers passing through its gates on their way to the Western Front during the Great War of 1914-1918.

Since then the city has become a popular destination for tourists looking for a short break visiting the many war cemeteries in the area, most of them maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Ypres is also a destination for other nationalities, including Australia and New Zealand for the annual Anzac commemoration, and other nationalities, the names of whose war dead are inscribed on the walls of Tyne Cot cemetery and the Menin Gate monument.

The Menin Gate, meanwhile, has been the scene of the daily Last Post ceremony, held every day except during the Nazi occupation. Even during Covid restrictions, when crowds were not permitted, a single bugler sounded the call every single evening.

But now with restrictions on travel from the UK to Belgium, hotel owners – many of whom rely on repeat visitors from Britain, who are close in proximity and also come to experience the beer – are concerned that their businesses, already hard-hit by corona, are at the end of their rope.

At present, British visitors – even those who are fully vaccinated – have to undergo testing and quarantine on arrival. In France and Spain, on the other hand, proof of vaccination is sufficient, with no further measures required.

The hotel owners are simply asking for equal treatment, based on the fact that 60% of their guests are from the UK.

“It’s all about 3 tests,” said Simon Louagie, manager of Talbot House in Poperinge, where British servicemen lodged for some rest and recreation while serving, and which is now a tourist attraction.

“One test imposed by the federal government in Belgium on arrival here. One three days before departure to the United Kingdom and then a last one on arrival there. That is not workable,” he said.

If we want to travel to Poland or Cyprus, we do not have to have to be tested because that is the EU. But to our neighbouring country, the United Kingdom, then three tests are necessary. We’ve had a busy summer in the Westhoek, but tourism can’t survive on two months. We need those Brits in September. We have 5 to 15 visitors a day at Talbot House. That means we won’t pull it off until July next year.”

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