While its natural charm remains undimmed, it has to be said that tourism in Wallonia has taken a hit in recent times.
The ongoing economic downturn and seeming never-ending availability of relatively cheap overseas travel have both conspired to leave the region’s once-thriving tourism industry a little worn around the edges.
Much the same could be said of some of the public properties in Wallonia which, due to lack of investment and other factors, have also fallen into steady decline.
But it is not all grim news because a Stavelot-based company is doing its bit to help restore the good times to this relatively small but beautiful part of Belgium. The company gives local people who own some of the region’s best preserved and sometimes historic properties the chance to rent them out to visitors. It’s a win-win scenario: the owner can claw back some of his investment in the restored property while towns and villages, together with the local economy, get a much-needed financial shot-in-the-arm from the influx of visitors.
Since its launch a few years ago, the initiative has steadily gained in popularity so much so that the company’s website is now among the “must visits” for those seeking to get away from the stresses and strains of modern life for a short break in some of Europe’s most under-rated countryside.
Today, the company (Ardennes-Etape) employs more than 30 multi-lingual people and has established a leading role in the provision of holiday homes in the Belgian Ardennes.
Typical of its fast-booming property database is a former blacksmith’s forge and stables which fell into partial disrepair but which, over a period of 20 years, have been lovingly restored by Thierry Mathy-Fernades and his wife.
The property, in the centre of Havelange, dates from 1870 when a blacksmith worked there next to a small farm, specialising in the production of ironwork for railways. In later years, the house was the
property of a Russian woman who, when she became too old to run the place, sold it to Thierry and his wife who renovated everything. The current owner found a lot of the blacksmith’s old material during the renovation work, some of it is on display in the building which is now available to rent.
Thierry told us: “It’s been a real labour of love but it has been great to restore this beautiful old building to something like its former glory. We are very proud of it.”
Ardennes-Etape holiday homes are located in the Belgian provinces of Liège, Luxembourg and Namur or, more specifically, 37.3% in the East Cantons, 34.7% in the valley of the river Ourthe, 12% in the valley of the river Semois and 15.6% in the region of the river Lesse.
Apparently, the Belgian Ardennes is particularly attractive to the Dutch-speaking community, with 38% of the outfit’s customers being Dutch and 50% Flemish (French speakers and those from Germany, Britain and
Luxembourg make up the rest).
Up until 2011, Ardennes-Etape had welcomed in excess of 1.5 million holiday makers to the Ardennes (three times the number of inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg). In its first year, a modest 7,264 customers booked but, last year, the number of reservations exceeded 30,000.
Apart from boosting the Walloon economy, the company is proving something of a technological trendsetter. Back in 2002, many such companies were still processing holiday reservations using pen and
paper but André Offermans, the founder of Ardennes-Etape, spotted the potential of an online reservation system.
Thanks to his early use of the internet, the company has subsequently been able to establish itself as a market leader in the field of holiday home rental and is able to organise customer care, human resources, public relations and more all in house.