Brussels lockdown: Molenbeek tourism soars despite huge losses for city's economy

The Brussels economy has suffered an €180m blow since the terror lockdown, but guided tours of Molenbeek have seen their popularity soar.

A room designed by Maya Hayuk at the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (Mima) in Molenbeek | Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

10 Aug 2016

The Brussels economy lost a massive €180m in trade as a result of the lockdown that followed the attacks in the city last March and last November's Paris attacks, it has emerged.

According to Belgium's economy ministry, the sectors hardest hit were hotels, with reservations down 25 per cent compared to a year before, and restaurants and cafes, with business down by 11.3 per cent and 18.5 per cent respectively. 

Business representatives have now warned of bankruptcies and job losses for small retailers and in sectors related to tourism and business travel.


Elsewhere, the city's main tourist attractions and museums are also still being impacted in the aftermath of the 22 March attacks. 

The capital had a 40 per cent drop in visitor numbers in July, compared to normal years and stringent security measures for the 21 July national holiday reduced the number of visitors.

Attractions like the Atomium and Mini-Europe are more dependent on foreign guests and have suffered most.

"Business tourism is back, but visitors stay for a shorter time. And the recreational tourists haven't come back yet", says Yvan Roque, President of the Brussels Federation for the Hospitality Sector.

Further comment came from Rodolphe Van Weyenbergh, Secretary-General of the Brussels Hotel Association, who described the situation as "untenable."

However, while the economy has suffered, one sector has seen a big increase, with guided tours of Molenbeek soaring in popularity since the terror attacks.

The district found notoriety as a hotbed of violent jihadist ideology and branded a "capital of international terrorism."

But the commune is now more popular than ever with a massive surge in interest from curious Belgians and foreigners.

Walking tours of Molenbeek have been fully booked since the Brussels attacks that killed 32 people, with groups of about 40 people regularly taking part in guided visits every Saturday.

Tour guide company Brukselbinnensebuiten, which has organised almost 10 times as many Molenbeek outings this year compared with the same period in 2015, says tourists are fascinated in learning more about the place where some of the terrorists alleged to be behind the atrocities in Brussels in Paris grew up.

Molenbeek expert and tour guide Hans Vandecandelaere explains that, "People's curiosity about Molenbeek is growing and that's good because it gives us a chance to show that it is so much more than Salah Abdeslam, rioting youths and poverty. There are also some very nice things happening here."

Several of the jihadists who participated in the Paris killings last November were from Molenbeek or have had links with the area, including Salah Abdeslam, his brother Ibrahim and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks.

Police say a large number of the 500 jihadists who have travelled from Belgium to Syria to fight were from Molenbeek.

With tensions still running high in Brussels - armed soldiers will remain on the streets of Brussels until at least 2 September, a month later than planned - the appeal of an area with a 30 per cent unemployment rate has surprised some.

Vandecandelaere says the tours should not been seen as "disaster tourism" and visitors are offered a "nuanced picture" of the town.

Guides of the commune once called "the Manchester of Belgium" highlight some of its less publicised "attractions", including the Museum of Industry and Labour and the art deco St John the Baptist church. The area, affectionately known as "Molem" to locals, also contains over six hectares of woodland.

"We do not go from jihadi address to jihadi address," said Vandecandelaere, who believes the image that Molenbeek is a "nerve-centre of international jihadism" is unfair to the area and its inhabitants.

The tours attract a mixture of people, including overseas visitors, university students, Belgians, expats and international film crews. Vandecandelaere says participants have reacted "very positively."

In addition, according to Molenbeek Mayor Françoise Schepmans "Molenbeek has been and remains on the frontline in efforts to tackle the scourge of radicalisation. But what we do not want to do is stigmatise all the people living here."


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