– Greet Vandenrijt
Inclusive hospitality: how can you contribute to this as a resident and enact change in your own life, as well as others? Pieter Ghijsels from VISITFLANDERS shares the insights he has gained from his experiences. It’s important to get rid of the ‘noise’ by eliminating big and small irritations that can disrupt the experience of guests in Flanders.
If you’ve ever walked, or rather scootered, through Leuven with Pieter then you’ll know that every few minutes you’ll hear: “Hey Pieter, how are you?” He answers with a beaming smile peeking out from under from his hat. His congenital disability has never stopped him from having an active and social life. He studied communication sciences in Leuven and has retained an unbelievably large network of classmates and housemates. Communication skills, making connections, and winning people over are also central to his professional life. I know him as a driven and warm colleague at VISITFLANDERS, who works hard to create an inclusive tourism experience for all. A real partner in crime!
We arrive at the Barboek café, which offers an irresistible combination of strong coffee and books. Pieter is reading 1984 by George Orwell… finally. But it’s remarkable how relevant this book is today. Orwell paints a sombre picture of a society in which privacy no longer exists. Individualism is suspect, everything has to happen in a group, everything is orchestrated, and thinking is dangerous. Language is stripped back to make it easier to control people. We’re seeing this future become our reality.
Pieter: “Big Brother is in our pockets. Google tracks what you do, where you’ve been, and it records your voice. Google knows that I’m reading ‘1984’. Though, maybe it doesn’t quite know what I think about it”, he laughs. His tone turns serious again, “In the hands of totalitarian regimes and dictators, this a dangerous weapon. The German philosopher Hanna Arendt describes Nazism as the banality of evil. Not wanting to know what another person is feeling, not thinking for oneself, following the herd. Superficiality is the root of evil. I therefore think it’s so important that we stay vigilant, have an open dialogue and don’t split off into sides or polarise. And, of course, keep reading,” he concludes.
No strangers, only friends
The tone is set; there’s no beating around the bush here. Can we make a difference with our work in tourism, I ask him.
“Absolutely, conflict arises when you see strangers as the enemy. Travelling to tomorrow is about connecting people and can counteract this mechanism. Seeing strangers as friends and having a positive attitude towards them is the antidote to conflict. Without sounding too naive, from our tourism perspective, we can contribute to the creation of a beautiful, fertile environment; to the flourishing of our community. We don’t want to put tourists on a pedestal and have everything else move aside for them. Locals should also be able to enjoy a pint at Leuven’s Grote Markt. The power of a flourishing destination is that we don’t neglect ourselves, but instead recognise the value of the visitors and make the interaction between the visitor and resident beneficial to both.”
My friend George
He and his wife Karen experienced the power of interaction during their honeymoon in Australia. Pieter describes this memorable moment on the other side of the globe.
“We went to do a quick shop before our trek and struck up a conversation with an older man at the checkout. George, as he was called, asked us where we were from. When we answered that we’re from Belgium, near Brussels, he said: ‘No way!’ In 1958, as a twenty-year-old, he visited the Brussels World’s Fair with his parents. His visit to the expo left a deep impression, because it inspired him to follow a path of science and technology.
‘But one evening, we couldn’t find the way back to our hotel,’ George remembered. ‘So, we asked someone on the street for directions. He knew the hotel, but had trouble describing the route, so he said, ‘I’ll get in and show you,’ and he leaped in the car. And as promised, he was able to point us in the right direction before hopping out of the car as quickly as he got in. ‘Now is my time to thank the Belgians!’, smiled George.”
This meeting had a knock-off effect, in Australia and in Leuven.
Pieter: “We spent at least an hour with George and he gave us all the insider tips he had, telling us about all his favourite spots. Thanks to George, we were able to visit the less obvious places, where we followed tips from other people we met. Now we always travel that way. Rather than planning everything with a guide book, we start by asking the locals: ‘What do you recommend?’ George remained a dear friend. We returned to Australia a few times since and always paid a visit to George. On my birthday, there’s always a card from him in the letter box. The experience George gave us has given us a sense of duty. We also take the time to give people directions. We see the visitors to our cities as guests and that has led to us making many great connections over the years!”
The cobblestones of Bruges and real friendliness
Pieter is an inexhaustible well of anecdotes. He tells the story of how Hanne—a young intern at the Inclusive Tourism department—created the plan for trialling a wheelchair-friendly walking route in Bruges. She went out in her wheelchair with her colleague Geneviève to give her a push. “It was quite the challenge for both of them due to Bruges’ heritage: the cobblestones!” he laughs. “She returned with some wise insights. It’s great if attractions, restaurants and cafés are fully accessible, but what really makes the difference is the friendliness of the people.”
Conclusion: the physical accessibility of a location is important to people with disabilities, but to create a flourishing location that people want to return to, you need the warmth of the people.
No more ‘noise’
We’re quickly coming to the conclusion that a flourishing destination is a place where people can blossom, a place that excludes no one. How can we become such a place, I ask him.
Pieter is reminded of a Chinese flatmate who was writing a PhD thesis about vibrations. In a well-running machine, you want to avoid vibrations or ‘noise’. It wastes energy, and it causes overheating and wear. If you have a disability, in your daily life and during your travels, you’ll experience lots of ‘noise’. Noise is not the same thing as the challenges we sometimes face when we travel, but it’s something that actually disrupts your experience. Noise is the sum of all the difficult, unpleasant moments, moments of frustration and a loss of energy. Reducing this noise in Flanders is what I see as our greatest challenge.”
Waga Waga: a flourishing, inclusive destination
Places without noise do exist. Waga Waga, on the periphery of the Australian desert is one of them. “We were there on a weekday in summer,” says Pieter. “People were going to work, sitting outside cafés and having meetings… And I saw them! I saw the 15% of the population that have a disability out on the streets. I saw a hairdresser in a wheelchair, a couple sitting outside of a café using sign language, and people with disabilities working at the museum.”
Pieter experienced this town on the edge of the desert as a flourishing location, a place that allowed its full human potential to be utilised. “I experienced first-hand that my disability was no reason for me to receive inadequate service or a second-class experience: from the reserved parking spaces in the shade to the great seats in the theatre and the adapted room with a beautiful view. It was such an enjoyable experience!”
Tourism as a lever
Your description of Waga Waga—a flourishing place where everyone can reach their full potential—is very illuminating. Can Flanders ever be like Waga Waga? A flourishing destination is only possible with the support of many other players: heritage, culture, sport, public spaces, education etc. “That’s right,” says Pieter, “a colleague once said that the reputation of our tourism product is fully dependent on the quality of the footpaths. But I strongly believe that tourism can be a lever. Our accessibility may have once left a lot to be desired, but we are making tangible improvements.”
Pieter: “When VISITFLANDERS developed criteria for accessible accommodation infrastructure and linked it to the accessibility certification, that sparked a lot of change,” says Pieter. “Until then, people believed that the concept of accessibility was too complex to be translated into objective measurements. With our criteria and certification, we served as inspiration for the Urban Development Regulations, for accessibility initiatives in government buildings, the cultural sector, the green sector, and so forth.”
Pieter saw a great example of this domino effect when he stayed at a B&B in Cyprus. When the owners made plans to start a B&B, their most important consideration, bar none, was that their son Chris, a wheelchair user, should feel completely at home and be able to use all the facilities. The owners succeeded in getting everyone in the village involved in creating an accessible environment.
Pieter: “Local attractions, restaurants and cafés all helped to make the guests at the B&B, whether disabled or not, feel completely welcome. There’s an accessible swimming pool and you can hire a scooter. You can do it all. It’s been one of my favourite holiday destinations for years now!”
Getting people with disabilities involved
Pieter also believes it’s important to suspend your judgement of the person in front of you, and to not put people into boxes. Never think that you know better. “Let people with disabilities decide what they want and what they’re capable of. When I wanted to go whale spotting on holiday and asked the person working at the boat rental whether I could participate, he didn’t say a definitive yes or no. He explained that his boat had 12 steps and that the next one had 5. ‘It’s up to you.’”
It’s Pieter’s opinion that we shouldn’t create separate experiences for people with disabilities, but instead ensure, as much as we can, that our offering can be enjoyed by everyone. And it can be good to see people with disabilities as antennae, as a kind of benchmark. “People with disabilities can identify issues that are important to a wider group of people. Are the signs clear and understandable to everyone? If not, how can we improve them for all?
KU Leuven had one of their buildings screened for accessibility”, says Pieter. This resulted in an interesting discovery. “The tiled floor had a light-coloured edge and a dark-coloured section in the middle. It was only when a researcher who was autistic pointed out that the dark tiles looked like a hole, that they understood why so many visitors preferred to walk on the lighter tiles. A disability makes you notice things that other people overlook. We can therefore learn a lot from them about the use of space and furnishings. After all, we want to reduce the noise for all users!”
“Sometimes we also need to be willing to make a radical 180 degree shift,” he adds. “The metro in Oslo succeeded in doing just that! They made a radical change to their signage by prioritising intuitive understanding. The exit that is suitable for everyone, including people with disabilities, has a signed marked ‘Exit’. The exit with a staircase has a sign with a pictogram for ‘stairs’. Therefore, there is no separate exit that has a sign with a wheelchair, as per the usual solution. They are using the principles of Universal Design and creating a design that can be used by a wide range of users, in a simple and intuitive way. It’s about widening your audience and basing your ideas on diversity.”
No separate path
I ask him where his drive to make the most out of every day comes from. “Without a doubt, from my parents,” he says. “The fact that I was born with a disability was no reason for them to treat me differently than my brothers and sister. They made sure that I was able to go to a normal school in my municipality. That wasn’t necessarily the norm at the time, as this was many years before the creation of integrated education or the M-decree. They always encouraged me to be as independent as possible. As a kid, I had a bike that I could use with one leg. It’s a case of giving it a try! When I was twelve, I got my first scooter (6 km per hour). As a teenager, they took me to an information session about living independently, even though I wasn’t ready for that yet. They didn’t want me to have to take a different path in life from everyone else. It was all about pushing boundaries. And travelling has really helped me with that!”
Pieter laughs: “The first trip I took with my wife, to Barcelona, was a memorable one. We wanted to take a cable car, but first had to climb a steep slope that spiralled up to the top. I was in a manual wheelchair and she was pushing as hard as she could! Eventually, I started walking next to the chair with my crutches. When we got fed up with that, Karen suggested we tried to get a lift from someone. I wasn’t convinced. Who would stop to give someone with a wheelchair a lift? But someone stopped immediately. It was a young father, with a kid on the back seat. He immediately started rearranging his whole car. The wheelchair went in and we were off. A hundred metres ahead, just beyond the turn, he said: ‘Es acqui [It’s here].’ I was amazed at the level of friendliness! And for me this was just another case of pushing boundaries; it was my first lift. It was an important experience of freedom of mobility. That is why I love working in tourism!”
Pieter Ghijsels loves accessible travel and not only in his work. To him, travelling means pushing boundaries. Giving everyone the opportunity to do that is his life’s work. First at KGV, a foundation for people with disabilities. And later at VISITFLANDERS, where he has worked as a project manager since 2002 and helped to shape accessible tourism in Flanders. In his free time, he is the engine behind the website ‘Toegankelijkopreis’ (Accessible Travel), which has interesting worldwide travel tips. He’s a man with a mission!
Greet Vandenrijt has worked for VISITFLANDERS for over 20 years, creating a strong travel experience in Flanders. As a storyweaver, she wants to demonstrate the power and impact of travel through the stories of travellers and holidaymakers.