Ghent is a wonderful city, there is no denying it. Local residents and tourists alike agree that Ghent is brimming with energy and creativity. It would be a shame not to share all this with the rest of the world, so the city gladly welcomes a great deal of visitors. After all, tourism is part of life in any healthy city.

However, it should not affect the city’s liveability and beauty. Nobody benefits from too many tourists. The authenticity of a historical city such as Ghent is difficult to reconcile with (too much) pressure from tourists and the accompanying commercial activities. The Coronavirus pandemic put urban tourism on hold for a considerable amount of time and highlighted the importance of continuously reflecting on ‘the tourism of the future’.

Together with Ghentians, tourism industry stakeholders, researchers and experts, the municipality investigated the type of tourism that is in everyone's interest. They came to the conclusion that Ghent should not necessarily attract more tourists by means of flashy promotional campaigns, but primarily invest in the city itself. This means making Ghent more attractive, vibrant, liveable and green for local residents as well as visitors.

Three pillars ensure a balance that benefits everyone in the city:

  • Integration: tourism concerns all policy areas. Ghent aims for tourism tailored to the needs of the city, and not the other way around. That’s why, whenever a decision is to be made, the following question is asked: ‘Does it benefit the inhabitants of Ghent?’ This way, local residents can become the city’s best ambassadors.
  • Cooperation: the ‘tourism of the future’ project has already demonstrated that cooperation increases public support for tourism in Ghent. In the coming years, we will therefore strengthen the ties with various stakeholders and interested parties, ranging from local residents and tourism industry representatives to government agencies.
  • Factual basis: a good tourism policy should be based on studies and figures. That’s why this new policy note on tourism was preceded by an in-depth SWOT analysis.

Ensuring public support, soundness, cooperation and integration is quite a challenge, which the City has summarised  in eight principles. These principles are based on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, which form the blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for everyone. Isn’t it fantastic that tourism can contribute to such a future?

Ghent’s unique DNA as attraction

For tourists, Ghent stands for Luscious food, the Light Festival, Liveliness and the Mystic Lamb. From now on, we can add Liveability to the list. For every choice to be made in terms of tourism, the impact on the city’s liveability will be assessed first.

Ghent’s identity always takes first place: “In Ghent, we do things our own unique way, naturally, critically and with respect for one another.”

Ghent’s typical DNA is ideally suited for a specific group of visitors: overnight tourists from Belgium and from the neighbouring countries. They include culture lovers, gastronomes, ecologists and conference goers, but not day-trippers who take a few selfies and are off again. The City will target regions with regular train and coach connections as well as thematic visitors, as was the case in the Van Eyck year.

What will the City not invest in, bearing in mind its DNA? In group and cruise tourism, which do not enhance the city’s liveability and are economically and ecologically less interesting. The City will consciously keep these forms of tourism within limits.

Once the tourists have arrived, a series of proud ambassadors will gladly welcome them. True Ghentians who are aching to share their love for Ghent with others will help ensure that tourists get the best possible experience of the city.

Fair, honest and authentic tourism

Ghent wants to focus actively on overnight tourists. Of course, this is only a good idea if the balance between housing and tourist accommodation is ensured in the city.

Fairbnb is a cooperative platform that invests part of the booking fee in the local community. The City encourages local entrepreneurs to enter into a dialogue with the sharing platform. The City will benchmark new hotel projects as to their added value for Ghent and all parties involved. Of particular interest are family-friendly venues, underutilised heritage repurposed into hotels and good camp sites.

Ghent is also further expanding its cultural and heritage offer. Heritage is dealt with and utilised respectfully, cultural tourism projects are promoted, the so-called ‘Arts Quarter’ is spotlighted, etc. Since there is so much to tell about this offer, numerous new guide initiatives have been taken in the city, some free, others payable. That’s why Ghent strives for the creation of a framework of arrangements between the guide associations.

Ghent's restaurants and bars are another asset which the City aims to develop, putting the spotlight on its culinary wealth and vibrant nightlife. When it comes to shopping, the focus is on Ghent’s authentic products. In partnership with local entrepreneurs, the City promotes an ‘only in Ghent’ story in which Ghent makers get a prominent place.

Off the beaten track

42 percent of Ghentians find the historical city centre too busy because of tourists. The tourism of the future will therefore focus on spreading: Ghent has much more to offer to tourists than the inner city. The spread over time is important too and can be achieved through judicious planning of festivals and events.

Ghent’s tourism offer of tomorrow will highlight two ‘new’ axes. The first one is the axis ‘Centre – Dampoort’, which is interesting thanks to features such as St Bavo's Abbey, the Van Eyck swimming pool, the recently reopened De Reep watercourse and Maaseikplein square which has been beautifully renovated.

The second axis is ‘Centre – Arts Quarter’, which will become even more interesting in the coming years thanks to Wintercircus, the pedestrian route to the De Krook library, the renovation of the university library and the redevelopment of Citadelpark. The City will map out interesting and easy-to-follow routes for these two axes.

In addition, Ghent will make use of signage guiding pedestrians through the city in a fun way. The hop-on-hop-off boat and cycling tourism will be promoted further. ‘Cycle seeing’ will become more appealing thanks to links with the green poles and recreational areas as well as the picturesque towns surrounding the city. Spreading will also be a criterion when granting hotel permits.

Making tourism more environment-friendly

Ghent is green: the city has led the way as a sustainable city for a long time. Ecological awareness is part of the city’s DNA and goes hand in hand with liveability, something Ghent’s tourism policy will surely take into account in the future.

The City aims to link tourism policy and environmental policy so as to enable Ghent to achieve climate neutrality, even with tourists. Within this scope, the City will support the hotel sector in decreasing its ecological footprint and guide them towards the Green Key label (an international eco-label for the hospitality industry).

Ghent’s popular excursion boats should also become more environment-friendly. Only a few of these boats are currently electrically powered. Boats running on fossil fuels cause emissions as well as noise and odour nuisance. In partnership with the operators of tourist excursion boats, the City will make efforts to achieve a greener fleet.

Ghent also wishes to be a pleasant place in summer and therefore continues to work on pavement removal and greening the city so that it can provide sufficient shade and cooling in summer. In addition, Ghent continues to focus on litter, since a clean city benefits both local residents and tourists.

Sustainable transport

A liveable city implies paying attention to sustainable mobility and road safety. As keeping tourist coaches out of the city centre is a priority, they will have to be parked on the outskirts as much as possible. Visitors can then enter the city on foot or by means of another mode of transport, such as a boat or rented bicycle.

Renting a bicycle will also be made easier for tourists. In collaboration with Fietsambassade Gent, the options and accessibility will be improved with rental points near the City Pavilion, the Gent-Dampoort train station and the De Krook library. A handy reservation tool helps visitors quickly rent an (electric) bike, tandem bike, cargo bike or kid’s bike. 

If getting tourists to ride a bicycle is the first step, then the next step if offering them a range of interesting options. Ghent will work together with the tourist offices of the surrounding areas to develop attractive cycling routes, possibly with stops in nearby museums.

The taxi offer will be enhanced so that people need to use their own car less in the centre, and the range of transport by water will be expanded further. In addition, Ghent will promote itself as the ideal train destination, in particular with Gent Dampoort as a handy hub for accessing the city by bus, bicycle or train or on foot.

Tourism making the city more accessible

A liveable city is accessible to local residents as well as visitors. To enhance the accessibility of the historical centre, Ghent intends to increase its focus on people with reduced mobility, people with an intellectual, visual or hearing disability and people with low financial possibilities.

The ‘accessibility charter’ that was drawn up a few years ago will be translated into a concrete action plan. This plan will cover the preparation of an accessible walk through the city, a set of rules for grants to make commercial premises more accessible, the installation of a scale model for the visually impaired in addition to the one at De Krook, the promotion of affordable camping tourism, and so on.

The Rap op Stap travel agency is Ghent’s travel agency for people with limited income. Two years after the start-up, the City undertakes to continue funding and developing its activities. Because everyone deserves to go on holiday, it is even a universal human right.

Ghent should be a fun and barrier-free destination, including for families with children. Points of attraction for families with children are places such as the Blaarmeersen sports and recreation park and the Castle of the Counts, but also the abundant street art. The City intends to involve young local residents as hands-on experts and ambassadors: what do you think is worthwhile in Ghent? And in addition to the sights, the hospitality industry is tested for its family friendliness. The City is also working hard on its candidacy to become European Youth Capital in 2024

Tourism that creates jobs

Tourists create jobs. They help the local economy develop by visiting bars, restaurants, hotels, museums, etc. The tourism industry mainly provides opportunities for low-skilled people. Growth in Ghent’s overnight tourism sector will result in the creation of employment. Three hotel rooms equal one full-time job in Ghent’s hospitality industry.

The City would like to see people find employment as a bartender, dishwasher or chambermaid – all jobs for which there is a shortage of applicants – but only if this employment is sustainable and the job is feasible. As the working conditions are not always attractive (for instance, night work), this will be no mean feat.

By, of and for everyone

Liveable tourism depends on so many factors that it requires a joint effort. Anyone can make a contribution. To make the ‘tourism of the future’ a reality, the City is therefore joining forces with industry associations (for instance, boat operators, guide associations, the traders’ organisation PuurGent, museums and the hotel sector), other government agencies (such as Toerisme Vlaanderen, North Sea Port and De Lijn), local residents, etc.

Participation is the magic word. Local residents are keen to be involved, professionals want to  have their say in the development of the project. However,  the tourism industry and local residents do not always have the same interests, of course. That’s why the debate will be conducted in two different manners.

On the one hand, there will be an advisory board on tourism for the local tourism sector. On the other hand, Ghentians will become a real partner for the first time, acting as ambassadors for the city, and the City will communicate more actively with them. This will enable residents to become tourists in their own city and make others as enthusiastic about Ghent as they are.