A Belgian government plan to boost domestic tourism got up and running on Monday (31 August), as applications for a free railway pass finally opened after a delay of a few months.
The new “Hello Belgium” initiative offers residents in Belgium 12 free rail journeys that can be used between October 2020 and March 2021, in what is hoped will be a boon to the country’s economy.
It will be open to any adult residents over the age of 12 already on Belgium’s population register and will be valid on any routes within the country. No travel on high-speed services will be covered and international trips will require a supplement, as will any journeys bound for Zaventem Airport.
Budding travellers will have until the end of September to apply for the scheme.
Initially planned to launch in the summer, the pass was first delayed until September because of a spat between national train operator SNCB and the government – which reportedly failed to consult properly with the firm – and concerns about overcrowding on the Belgian coast.
When the idea was first floated in June, SNCB CEO Sophie Dutordoir complained that “the way in which a decision was taken […] without any consultation raises serious questions”, related to hygiene and cost. Around nine million Belgium residents will be eligible for the pass.
Belgium is subject to numerous travel restrictions thanks to the coronavirus outbreak and has ‘red-listed’ a number of other countries due to worrying infection rates. All told, it has had a cooling effect on the tourism sector.
The free pass aims to jump-start travel across the country but imposes a two-journeys-per-month limit on travellers, which SNCB says is “to observe health and social distancing conditions, avoiding any risk of overcrowding of trains heading for major tourist sites.”
Tempers flared during the height of summer when sun worshippers were filmed scuffling on a beach and mayors of coastal towns accused the train operator of not implementing safety guidelines properly, allegedly allowing too many people to reach the shore.
Another SNCB gratuity linked to free bike transportation has already proved popular – charges were waived until the end of the year – but the firm was forced to impose strict times of carriage after too many travellers took advantage of the offer.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]