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On a walk with Willy van Zandweghe

– Interview and translation by Bart Van Damme and Deepl

We want to make the municipality of Sint-Laureins a thriving destination. If one man in Sint-Laureins is allowed to put this search on the hat as a compliment, then it is Willy Van Zandweghe anyway. Even though he would never do it himself. The chairman of the tourist advisory board in Sint-Laureins is a patient person who connects and unites.

We stroll along some lonely farm roads on the Sint-Margrietestraat, close to his home, looking for new opportunities for the walking network. In the meantime, we have a heartfelt conversation about the shared dream that we cherish for this part of Meetjesland.

We’re near a creek (De Val) where probably never a living soul comes, except for the farmer and a stray neighbour. It’s very quiet here. We see a tractor driving in the distance but don’t hear it.
“People need silence”, Willy explains. “Rest in your head and a coach who teaches us to appreciate these things again.” Willy has just retired and is determined to open a Bed & Breakfast himself. The tourism microbe has got a good grip on him.

“I see a lot of possibilities around the experience of silence. Yoga for example, in this beautiful and unknown place. Horse therapy. Mental coaching. These are all ideas that live with fellow logistics managers in the immediate vicinity. It has become clear to me that there is a need for people. It has also become clear to me that there is a need for people to work on themselves in their free time, to step out of the system for a while. And there is a need for individuals but also for groups to create opportunities around this. A search on the internet taught me that there is already such a tourist offer. But we have the right environment, that vastness, that desolation, that beautiful nature…” A challenge, according to Willy. “Can such a project be described as ‘flourishing’,” he asks himself out loud. “I certainly see added value for the entrepreneur and for the tourist. But is it also a win for the inhabitants? The environment? A project that works on the experience of silence, it is in any case up to itself to keep the silence and to bring it about where necessary.” We discuss the fact that such places of silence should be quite exclusive, which makes them even more valuable and therefore needs to be protected even better. “Also an added value for the people living in the neighbourhood, right?” concludes Willy. The connection with the tourist entrepreneurs has been made and the ideas of what this experience of silence can contain are already quite clear. The next step in the project is to make a brochure or an online place to effectively promote this. And one exclusive experience should lead to the next need of people who also want to get into the story.

On 10 June, a new ‘Bike & Discover’ event will be launched. This project has been running for several years now and arose out of the complaint that the tourist board was more likely to set up projects with the restaurants and cafés and less so with the accommodation sector.
“Instead of going on the defensive, we quickly came up with this concept,” explains Willy. “This will be the third time and last year we had 70 cyclists. The accommodation sector is very enthusiastic that we are putting their company in the spotlight in this way. We get to know our own inhabitants of the tourism sector, including people from all over the region, but through word-of-mouth advertising and facebook sharing, interested parties from all over Flanders come to this day to get to know our accommodation companies better. And when asked whether this is ‘flourishing’, we come to one conclusion by switching from one look to another. “Of course we do.”

Without a vision, without a dream, the Sint-Laureins Tourist Advisory Board would never have become a model for the entire region. Lievegem, Maldegem and Assenede also have the idea of setting up such an advisory council. “We have come to the point where I have to refuse enthusiastic people on our board of leading volunteers, because there would then be too many of us,” explains Willy. “This is very unfortunate and even a bit difficult to stop that enthusiasm. I have now come to the conclusion that working in smaller thematic groups is a very good way of channelling all that enthusiasm. Fot example: we have the idea to expand our traditional ‘winter walks’ more because of success, a thematic group could take care of this and take responsibility. This will give us a stronger organisation. And we keep a lot of commitment aboard.”

The chairman of the advisory board also has dreams, in addition to the expansion of his own B&B soon. “I am still convinced that we can enhance the walking experience within our walking network. There are still large loops on paved roads which, thanks to a few crossings in the polders, can become spectacularly more beautiful. A crossing over ‘De Val’, here near my house, is one of those projects that I still dream of. And when it comes to cycling, I see a safe axis with a separate bike path between Sint-Laureins and Watervliet and connections in the direction of the small border villages Sint-Margriete and Waterland-Oudeman. I hope that the municipality will work together with us to achieve this.” Willy’s dreams have the advantage of clarity. “A lot has already happened,” admits Willy, “but we can raise the bar even higher, so that our cycling and walking paradise at the border becomes even more attractive here and seamlessly merges into Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (Holland).”

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