Belgian region Flanders is to promote the 100th anniversary of the Great War at World Travel Market 2012, the leading global event for the travel industry, with the aim of attracting up to two million tourists in four years.
The fields of Flanders, particularly around the town of Ypres, were the key battle ground fought over by the Allies and German soldiers from October 1914 practically until the end of the war in November 1918.
Up to 17 million people died during World War 1, including ten million military personnel, with the vast majority of those fighting in the trenches of Flanders.
The In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres is being re-launched in June this year commemorating the dead and the 20 million wounded; following a three year rebuild which has doubled it in size.
The museum also charts the history of the fields where poppies, now a symbol of peace and remembrance, abound and focuses on both the impact of the Great War as well as the impact it had on millions of people’s lives.
Tourism Flanders project leader of the Great War centenary Veerle Viaene said: “Even if you are not a descendant of someone who fought here in Flanders the area is still very moving for anyone who visits it and visitors are fascinated by it.
“We want to tell the story on and behind the front; there are so many different stories of all the soldiers who had to fight and survive in the war and their women and children who stayed at home.
“We also want to look at the different ways it affected those fighting in the war, not just the historical and military impact but the way it affected their mental health too.
“We are also looking at the families who lived in the region before the war started and what they had to do to survive. We want to tell the little stories of people and the effect the fighting had on them too.”
Viaene added the recent film War Horse has once again raised interest in World War I, a situation which will be further heightened by HBO and the BBC’s forthcoming autumn drama Parade’s End which is also partially set during the war.
Viaene hopes the 100th anniversary of the Great War will see two million tourists visit the Flanders Fields region during the four-year period, considerably increasing the 350,000 visitors to the area each year at the moment.
Overall, Flanders is aiming to attract an extra one million tourists to the region in 2015, taking the total to seven million people.
She added tourists are expected from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, countries which were caught up in the fighting due to their relationship with the UK, as well as German, French, British and other European travellers.
Veerle said: “This really was the first war to shake the world and we expect its global impact to be reflected in the number of different countries we are expecting to welcome travellers from.”
She added the decision to highlight the anniversary at WTM 2012 is being backed by an autumn marketing programme aimed at tour operators and agents about the forthcoming centenary while press trips have already taken place with more being planned for the next two years.
Reed Travel Exhibitions director World Travel Market, Simon Press, said: “Such anniversaries can really drive a destination’s tourism and with World War I still very much part of the public’s consciousness, it is an opportunity worth grasping.
“I am sure WTM will provide an excellent forum for pushing this message and starting the process of educating the trade to ensure its success.”