To celebrate this anniversary, the Revue W+B highlights the tremendous promotional work that has made Wallonia a tourist destination recognised and appreciated outside our borders. Meeting with Pierre Coenegrachts, Deputy CEO of VISITWallonia.
Can you briefly remind us of the role of VISITWallonia?
Our organisation has been using its expertise to promote tourism abroad for 40 years now. Today, we are marking an important turning point. VISITWallonia, a strong brand created during the Covid-19 period and already widely promoted through our website and extensive press campaigns, is becoming the new name of the Wallonia Belgium Tourism asbl. This is a significant development for the future, with the aim of having a single name shared by many stakeholders in the sector.
As a reminder, our priority markets are French- and Dutch-speaking Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. Other actions are being carried out, in these and other markets, in synergy with the Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX) and Wallonia-Brussels International (WBI). Not only do we share the same premises abroad in several countries, but we also organise occasional events in other markets. As an example, VISITWallonia, AWEX and WBI were present together in November 2021 for Walloon Week at the Belgian Pavilion of the World Expo in Dubai.
What is your history and what have been the most significant developments in policies and actions over the past decades?
Our journey has been marked by major milestones that have followed the changes in Belgian institutional policy. It all began in 1982, the year the French Community created the Office de Promotion du Tourisme de Wallonie et de Bruxelles (OPT). The defined missions of this young public utility foundation were to deal with both leisure and business tourism. At the time, we had offices in around 20 countries considered growth markets, where we were present with the Flemish Community. We worked closely with Sabena, our national airline. In 1994, a new step was taken when the management of French-speaking tourism was delegated jointly to the Walloon Region and the French Community Commission of the Brussels Capital Region.
Then, in 2007, an important change took place with the creation of a non-profit association whose general assembly is largely open to the private sector. The idea was to create synergies between public and private operators in a spirit of cooperation and shared investment, with the aim of reaching new markets and target audiences. This was when the Promotion Clubs were created, and they are still very present. In 2011, we changed our name to Wallonia Brussels Tourism asbl, a new step.
Lastly, in 2017 (in connection with the 6th State Reform), we became Wallonia Belgium Tourism asbl and, while our head office remained in Brussels, our operational headquarters moved to Namur. Today, our three regions are in control of their tourism promotion and our campaigns are mainly orchestrated according to economic criteria, even if cultural criteria are still present. Tourism has proven to be a buoyant market, generating more than 85,000 jobs in Wallonia, most of which cannot be relocated, and represents nearly 4.1% of Wallonia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
What are the main elements of this promotion and the strategy for reinforcing our tourist image inside and outside our borders?
The sector is rapidly becoming more professional. We have worked to strengthen on the one hand the linguistic reception and on the other hand the digitisation of our partner tour operators and the putting online of offers for visits and excursions via the website www.VISITWallonia.be. Nowadays, everything is largely booked online and digital promotion work is constantly evolving. For example, we also target bloggers and influencers with a large following, as the nature of our work is changing and this also requires a great deal of flexibility and adaptability.
Have any promotional campaigns stood out to you from the 1980s to the present day?
Initially, the campaigns were mainly national. For example, "Belgium, the surprise package of Europe", a campaign carried out with Sabena in the 1980s, targeted an English-speaking, and particularly American, audience more interested in city trips or remembrance tourism. In 2019, we led a campaign, in coordination with ETC (European Travel Commission) around Slow tourism in close partnership with the French Grand Est and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Its common theme invited the public to take the time to discover another side of Europe. Ecotourism continues to increase and the offer is growing. For example, we were involved in the development of the successful "CIRKWI" app in 2021. It contains a wide range of hiking and biking tours throughout Wallonia and Belgium.
And what will demand be like in the future? What evolutions do you predict?
Promotional work is already more focused on a seasonal offer, which makes it possible to discover Wallonia twelve months a year. The rhythm of school holidays and the energy crisis will have an impact in the short and medium term and will change behaviours. The message we want to convey is that Wallonia has many assets. Since the Covid-19 crisis, the Belgian public and that of neighbouring countries have rediscovered the richness of our heritage and short local stays are becoming increasingly attractive.
Going on holiday in Wallonia is not a plan B but a real choice!
By Emmanuelle Dejaiffe
This article is from Revue W+B no. 158.