BRUGES, Belgium (Reuters) – Belgium’s historic city centres of Bruges and Brussels, usually so busy with visitors that authorities have considered limiting tourists, are facing an unprecedented challenge as the coronavirus pandemic cuts tourism to zero, officials say.
Unlike other top European tourism spots such as Paris and Amsterdam, UNESCO world heritage site Bruges is almost totally reliant on its eight million visitors a year, who bring in 750 million euros annually.
“There are just no more tourists,” said Bruges’ Mayor Dirk De Fauw, saying that even the deadly March 2016 attacks by Islamist suicide bombers in Brussels, which put some tourists off visiting Belgium, were not nearly as bad.
“Nobody is coming to Bruges anymore,” he told Reuters from one of the city’s now empty 16th century squares.
Last year, the sheer number of tourists descending from cruise ships and coaches to Bruges, which lies near Belgium’s North Sea coast, began to create a backlash against mass tourism, and authorities considered cracking down on ships.
The outbreak of the new coronavirus, which is costing Europe’s tourism industry around one billion euros a month in lost revenue, has also hit Brussels, a city that has overcome a reputation as the staid European Union capital to see Chinese tourists flock in.
As the sound of bells rings out across Brussels’ Grand Place and its opulent guildhalls, officials cannot hide their dismay.
“The impact is catastrophic,” said Marc Van Muylders, who represents Brussels’ cafe and restaurant sector.
Residents have sought a lighter side, putting a face mask on the city’s most famous landmark, the 400-year-old Manneken Pis, a bronze statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain that is normally overwhelmed with selfie-snapping visitors.
(Reporting by Clement Rossignol, Christian Levaux, Bart Biesemans; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)