Off the beaten tourist track: land of tulips wants to sharpen its appeal

To make a success of its tourist industry, the Netherlands has had to accept a somewhat distaseful fact: Not too many people come to Europe with the purpose of visiting Holland. A stop here is usually a quick one, on the way to or from places like France, Germany, Italy, England, or Scandinavia.

"When people come to Europe -- especially on their first visit -- they go to Paris, Rome, or london," Hans T. Cornelissen, director of the Netherlands National Tourist Office, acknowledges. "They stop here in between."

As a result, most visitors do not stay more than a few days. This is particularly true of tourists from outside Europe. Of the more than 4 million Americans traveling to Europe each year, Mr. Cornelissen figures, only about 10 percent visit the Netherlands, and the average stay is "less than a week." This includes the many people who stop in this international trading country on business, however, "and this brings the average down," he points out.

And many Europeans also make short visits, staying no more than four or five days.

Fortunately, Mr. Cornelissen adds, Holland is getting an increasing share of the "repeater market," and these people are staying at least a week, sometimes two or three.

Last year, the first-timers and repeaters made a direct contribution of nearly $4 billion to the Dutch economy. This only includes air fares, hotel charges, car rentals, and other items that can be directly traced to tourists. It does not include restaurants and shops, where it is impossible to separate foreign buyers from Dutch customers. This "indirect" effect would probably double the $4 billion figure, making the total some 60 percent more than Holland receives for exporting its natural gas.

To persuade people to stay longer and to bring in more repeaters, Mr. Cornelissen says, "we are trying to figure out how to promote Holland and grab it in one sentence."

That could prove difficult. For as the tourist director admits, the country does not have a single image that sticks in people's minds. Depending on the person, Holland might represent wooden shoes and colorful costumes, tulips, windmills, reclaimed land and dikes, or famous museums containing the best of Dutch art.

Mr. Cornelissen hopes to turn this situation to Holland's advantage by promoting the country's diversity and its appeal to a variety of tastes. For Americans lately rediscovering the bicycle, he hopes to capitalize on the Netherlands' love for two-wheelers.

"Cycling in the United States is like a sport," he says. "Here, it is important transportation." One need only be in any Dutch city during rush hour to confirm this. While trolleys, taxis, and automobiles take up the center of the streets and roads, special paved bicycle lanes between the road and the sidewalks are crowded with pedaling commuters. Even on country roads, a large percentage of the vehicles are bicycles. It is estimated that at least three-fourths of the 14 million Dutch people own at least one bicycle. And with the price of gasoline standing at the US equivalent of about $2.40 a gallon, interest in pedal-power is even greater.

To accommodate all these bikes, the Netherlands has installed an elaborate system of conveniences. Besides the bike lanes, there are bicycle racks at every train and bus station and in front of many stores. Intercity trains all have a car where bikes can be kept, and train stations at some 60 cities and towns have shops where bikes can be rented.

"We are using these facilities to stress bicycle tours in the provinces," Mr. Cornelissen says.

For people whose image of Holland is summed up by windmills, he would like "to show them what people did with the mills. They were not just used for pumping water." Until large electric motors came along, windmills were used to help make paper and textiles, grined flour and help in the centuries-long process of reclaiming land from the sea. Working in the series, they pumped the water to higher and higher levels, until it was poured over the dikes.

This "combination of industry and tradition" is one aspect of the Netherlands Mr. Cornelissen wants to promote. While a tour of a seaport may not be the first thing most people think of when they plan a vacation, the ports of the Rotterdam and Amsterdam have glass-topped tour boats that take visitors out among the oil tankers, freighters, and container ships that come from almost every country in the world.

For someone whose language is English, Holland could be called "Beginner's Europe." After Dutch, English is the most widely spoken language. Asking for directions, ordering meals, and making purchases in almost any store can be done in English.

"In school, everyone learns English now," a public relations spokesman for one Dutch company said. A Dutch television station even carries an english-language instruction program.

Mr. Cornelissen maintains that this is a major advantage for the Netherlands. "As a rule, people around the world know a language barrier doesn't exist in the Netherlands," he says.

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