The Scheldeland region

Context

Scheldeland is a tourist region – therefore not an administrative area as such – which forms a corridor between four important art cities: Brussels, Ghent, Mechelen, and Antwerp. The region follows the basins of the Scheldt, Dender, and Rupel rivers, offering a tourism and recreation product focused on leisure activities such as cycling, walking or boating along the waterways. Specifically, the cycle ways are linked with the existing horticultural industry (over 200 companies) in the area.

Cultural tourism products, motivations and existing gap

Around the Rupel river, historic industrial heritage can be found, linked to centuries old clay and brickmaking and leaving a heritage track of clay pits, ovens, and chimneys. In Willebroek, heritage takes a darker side with the Fortress of Breendonk having been used as a prison and deportation centre by the Nazi’s during World War II. Several monumental castles and fortresses of various periods can also be visited in the region, most notably the Castle of Laarne (originally 11th-12th century), Castle Marnix de Sainte Aldegonde (originally 10th-11th century), Castle d’Ursel (mid-18th century), and Fortress of Liezele (early 20th century).

The two main historic cities in the region are Aalst and Dendermonde, both offering some impressive late-Medieval architecture. The Belfry of Dendermonde has been UNESCO World Heritage listed since 1999.

Cultural tourism strategies

Currently, the primary international tourist product of Belgium – and specifically the Flanders region – is primarily based on its historic art cities. In comparison, the tourist area of Scheldeland only accounts for 1% of tourist arrivals, mostly by Belgian and Dutch tourists. Scheldeland seems to have untapped potential when analysing the available opportunities in terms of nature, history, and location. There is a centre-periphery imbalance with tourism concentrated in the surrounding urban regions of Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels, rejecting the area in-between, notwithstanding an above-average accessibility.

Lab goals

The overarching goal of the Living Lab is to support the development of cultural tourism through bottom-up development. The Lab specifically aims to promote a broader view on culture and heritage which is currently, specifically in a Flemish context, rather narrowly focused on built urban heritage. Combining industrial heritage in this region with slow tourism products (walking, cycling, or boating) and local gastronomy can cater a more local and transformational tourist experience.

Suggested activities and innovations being developed

The Living Lab fits with the destination development plans of the relevant destination management organisation. Their strategy acknowledges that heritage and cultural settings, especially when developed through local involvement, can be specifically impactful for travellers, while also taking into account location-specific carrying capacities. As such, there is a strong interest to support cultural tourism in less-visited areas, both as a means to elevate communities in the periphery of tourism, and to decrease existing pressures on well-visited destinations.

Potential stakeholders

  • Toerisme Scheldeland is the regional DMO responsible for the promotion and of the tourist area.
  • Visit Flanders, the DMO for the entire Flanders region has a strong incentive to support innovations focused on creating a ‘flourishing destination’, with Living Labs central to the ‘Tourism Transforms 2.0’ trajectory currently being developed.