Naked ambition of tourism chiefs revives once-fashionable resorts

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With the architecture of Benidorm and the climate of Bognor, parts of Belgium's 40 miles of seaside form a frequently chilly (and often ugly) riposte to those who think that the entire continental coast is chic.

With the architecture of Benidorm and the climate of Bognor, parts of Belgium's 40 miles of seaside form a frequently chilly (and often ugly) riposte to those who think that the entire continental coast is chic.

The beach at Bredene, for instance, is neither big nor fringed with palm trees. None the less, it has become Belgium's latest weapon in a battle to revive a coastline that was once the most fashionable in Europe.

When Bredene became the country's first official nudist beach last month, several hundred swimmers stripped off in front of television camera crews. It was not a flash in the pan. One month on, the beach now attracts as many as 2,000 people a day, including scores of Germans who would otherwise be across the border in the Netherlands, where seaside nudity is a tradition.

Bredene's officials see sunbathing in the altogether as part of a plan to revive a coastline that until recently was deep in the doldrums.

During the 1960s, much of Ostend's historic promenade was ripped down to make way for a swath of modern blocks, including a high-rise tower that claims to be the tallest coastal structure between Gibraltar and the North Cape. Some resorts, such as the elegant De Haan, kept their period charm but most were not that fortunate. So relentless are the glass and concrete apartment buildings that line the sea that the coastline was likened to the "Atlantic Wall" of Germany's Second World War defences against Britain.

All of which confounds the fact that Ostend was once a mecca for Europe's élite. Belgian seaside resorts began developing in the late 18th century and during the Victorian era visitors enjoyed an extra frisson; men and women could bathe together, the sort of licentiousness impossible in England or France.

The patronage of Leopold II, enriched by his colonial conquests in the Congo, ensured that Ostend really took off as a resort.

After two world wars and the Depression in the middle, the coast picked itself up and prospered again, albeit with less celebrated clientele. When Belgian workers won the right to a paid holiday for the first time the initial entitlement of one week limited travel options and made the coast an obvious choice. The seaside boomed, prospering through the Sixties and Seventies, only to stumble as tastes changed.

Knokke, with its snooty hotels, exclusive golf clubs and elegant villas, still markets itself as Belgium's answer to Deauville, but assaulted by competition from package tours to sunny climes (and suffering from decades of under-investment) most of the coast is firmly in decline.

Instead of surrendering, the Flemish regional government is now fighting back, determined to invest and diversify and to attract different groups of people, from day-trippers and pensioners to German naturists.

Technology is being deployed to combat two of the greatest gripes of the seaside visit: the weather and the lack of parking. This year, there have been nearly 500,000 hits on a coastal weather website. Before they leave home, visitors can check web-cams to see how crowded are the beaches and car parks.

A tram already links all the main resorts and the Flemish government wants to extend it by reopening a train line along the coast to Boulogne. A cycle track is being built and there are campaigns to highlight the quality of Belgian food (such as Zeebrugge's fish restaurants). Ministers want to foster attractions that don't depend on the unpredictable weather, such as a toy train museum or the refurbishment of the Ostend casino.

As Jurgen Vanpraet, spokesman for the Flemish tourism ministry, puts it: "Despite all the mistakes of the past, we have shown we can do something. Everything we do now is connected with quality." To cap it all, the success of the first nudist beach has already led to discussions on a second, one whose name will inevitably appeal to the British tradition of seaside double entendre. The location is the beach at Koksijde.