The tourism and security situation in Belgium is shifting rapidly, with a travel advisory from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) followed by a plea from European tour operators – then a dramatic terrorist shootout with police.
The shootout on Saturday morning (Australian time) saw heavily armed Belgian police storm a house in the predominantly Muslim Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels and arrest the most wanted man in Europe, Salah Abdeslam, suspected ringleader of the Paris terror attacks.
Abdeslam’s arrest followed gunfire, explosions and police shouting to suspects inside an apartment building.
A few days earlier, in another Brussels raid on Tuesday, police shot dead an Algerian. His name and other personal details matched those of an ISIS fighter who planned to be suicide attacker, media reported.
After that incident, DFAT issued the following advisory:
“On 14 March Belgian police conducted a counter-terrorism operation in the Rue Du Dries in Forest, Brussels. Travellers are reminded that there is a heightened potential for police raids to take place with little or no warning in response to the raised terrorism threat.
“If you are in an area where a police raid is being conducted, remain indoors and close all windows and blinds. Monitor local media and follow the instructions of local authorities. The level of this advice has not changed. We continue to advise Australians to exercise a high degree of caution in Belgium.”
As Belgium tightened airport security checks, rumours spread that full passport controls could be introduced. This worried many coach tour operators, who include Belgium in itineraries because it’s a welcoming, centrally placed European country that’s delightful to visit. Belgian tourism operators hastened to let tourists know they were welcome and wanted.
On Thursday, the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), with over 800 members, issued the following statement:
“Free access to Belgium will continue as normal this summer. Recent speculation that controls on air arrivals will be extended to land borders is erroneous. In particular coach groups can expect continued ‘borderless’ access when arriving from any of the neighbouring states.”
Chief Executive of Visit Flanders, Peter de Wilde, said: “We know there has been some confusion in the marketplace, and so I am delighted to confirm that there are no plans to impose systematic checks on vehicles at the Belgian border. We know that Flanders features in many pan-European itineraries, and it is important that incoming visitors – especially those from long haul origin markets – know that they are welcome. Part of that welcome is the continuation of the unfettered access allowed to those coming in from our neighbouring countries.”
ETOA chief executive Tom Jenkins pointed out the Belgium “lies at the heart of Europe.
“Brussels is the centre of the EU,” Jenkins said. “With its incomparable architectural heritage, its culture and cuisine, Brussels embodies much of what makes Europe attractive and unique. It is vital for visitors to Europe that they can have unimpeded access to such an important destination.”
Not long after that statement, a big raid and shootout in Brussels’ Molenbeek precinct on Saturday captured four terror suspects, including Abdeslam, suspected mastermind of the Paris terror attacks and last surviving member of the 10-strong ISIS terror cell that carried them out.
The Molenbeek quarter, one of 19 municipalities in the Brussels metropolitan area, has become a hotbed of jihadist activity, even gaining the title “terrorist capital of Europe”.
As GQ Magazine pointed out, the shooter from the May 2014 attack on Brussels’ Jewish Museum, Mehdi Nemmouche, lived in Molenbeek for a time. So did the man who fired on a French train last August, Ayoub El Khazzani. Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo slayings last January, bought his guns in Molenbeek.
Meanwhile, over 440 Belgian citizens have travelled to fight in the Syrian civil war, predominantly on the side of ISIS.
Many Belgians, and residents of Brussels, are left wondering quite what is happening to their country and its capital.
Written by Peter Needham