A rich history and culture generate thriving tourism

Year after year this country dips into its rich cultural and historical heritage to provide special attractions for tourists from all over the world. While Belgium is not considered a major glamour holiday spot for world jet-setters, it nevertheless welcomes a steady flow of voyagers. It benefits from regular tourists, visitors just passing through for a few days on their tour of Europe, and a substantial traffic of official and business travelers.

For instance, the picturesque and historic city of Bruges, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the north, has become a favorite of young Japanese couples. They fly all the way from their homeland on a package wedding-honeymoon tour and are married in one of the Flemish city's decorative settings.

In addition, the country has been reasonably successful in recent years in encouraging visitors of all categories through an annual series of events and attractions built around a historical or cultural theme. This year the theme is the 150th anniversary of the nation's independence.

There is also the 1,000th birthday for the city of Liege. Last year, Brussels celebrated its 1,000th year as well, and a few years ago it was the 400 th anniversary of the birth of Antwerp's most renowned artist, Peter Paul Rubens. These anniversary years, like any others, are filled with traditional festivals and performances, which are a regular staple of this society.

In all, an estimated 120,000 people are employed in Belgian tourism. The patterns of this side of the economy have undergone major changes in recent years. A building boom in the hotel field in the past decade led to the closing or modernization of older hotels. Rising prices have also steadily eroded the attraction of the Belgian North Sea coast as a magnet for Belgians, West Germans , Britons, and other who traditionally visited there. This led to drops of about 20 percent in the number of tourists there in recent years.

In the meantime, Brussels, the Ardennes, and Bruges have held their own in the international tourist market. From mid-May to mid-September last year, during the height of the millennium festivities, some 1 million tourists visited Brussels' historic central square. Overall there was a drop of about 1.3 percent from 1978 in the number of tourists in the country. And 1979, which saw some 6.5 million foreign tourists registering in the country, was substantially below previous years, according to industry figures.

Yet, partly because of increased cut-rate transatlantic flights, there has been an increase in the number of American tourists.

Of course, the country still boasts a number of major attractions. There are the splendid medieval cities and regions such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Liege, filled with abbeys, castles, and art treasures. Other tourist favorites are Brussels, with its well-earned reputation as a culinary capital, and the placid Ardennes forests and hills. Tourists are especially drawn to the multitude of fine restaurants. More eating places in Belgium have earned the coveted Michelin Guide stars of fine cooking than in any country outside France.

Visitors also usually discover some small town, hotel, or ancient site which becomes a favorite.

This year, in connection with the 150th anniversary festivities, the country will play host to its regular Europalia, musical, and cultural series, as it does every couple of years. Top performers from other countries stage productions in Belgium, sometimes original ones for the occasion, during these Europalia series. But this eyar, instead of featuring artists from only one European country, as is the custom, there will be a sampling of the best from all over Europe, performing at various times and locations in Belgium.

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