As the long Pentecost weekend goes into its third day, the verdict so far is that there has so far been a lot of people visiting the coastal towns – but not so many as to be unmanageable.
The coastal economy is dependent on visitors from the interior for its very survival. But these are not ordinary times, and the restrictions on travel, the closure of the horeca sector (hotel-restaurant-cafe) and the worry of how to maintain social distancing measures on the busy beach and seafront, have all weighed heavily.
The economic argument alone almost led to an uprising earlier in the lockdown, when the national government said the owners of second homes – many of them apartment on the seafront – would not yet be allowed to visit their properties.
At the same time, the mayors of some coastal towns went on record to expressly oppose that order, explaining that they (and their local police forces) would do nothing to prevent owners coming to the coast.
This weekend, one of the most important in the calendar for coast businesses, the restrictions are relaxed. The horeca sector remains closed, but everything else is open.
Everything but the beach. While the different resorts have come up with novel ideas for keeping people at a distance from each other on the sands, none of them is yet in place. And the majority of foot traffic this weekend has been on the front and in the shopping areas.
All in All, the visitors are being well received.
“There are more people than last weekend, but you wouldn’t call it a mass,” said police chief Philip Denoyette in Blankenberge. Police in Ostend agreed there were large numbers of people, but everything was peaceful.
At De Panne, the resort typically sees visitors from the north of France just across the border, but they were behaving well, mayor Bram Degriek said.
At the other end of the coast, the mayor of Sluis just across the border in the Dutch province of Zeeland, the arrival of Belgian tourists on Sunday, one day after they were allowed to travel, was not excessive, according to Sancho Jansen, president of the association of local businesses.
“It was not particularly crowded. We were able to manage the influx,” he said.
The green light from the authorities for Belgians to cross the border for shopping came as a surprise to the Dutch.
“It could have been better communicated,” he said. “We were expecting them later.”
Bredene saw large numbers of visitors, despite the closure of the naked beach for which the town is famous.
“It is difficult for my services to manage everything. But it is very good preparation for the summer. After this weekend we will evaluate everything and adjust if necessary,” said mayor Steve Vandenberghe.
The one exception was Leopold Lippens, the mayor of Knokke.
“We find that people are not following the basic rules that say ‘keep your distance, put on a mouth mask’,” he said. “They think they are on holiday, and that the sea air is magical. That is unfortunate, because corona exists and can have incredible consequences.”