November 24, 2015 / 6:07 AM / 5 years ago

Brussels security lockdown hurts tourism, business

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - At the end of what usually is a busy lunchtime with customers from nearby offices flocking to his leather goods store in one of Brussels’ main shopping streets, manager Karen Arkelyan planned to close early on Monday.

Belgian soldiers patrol in central Brussels as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“This is catastrophic, really very bad. We only had two or three tourists randomly walk in today. Most things are closed around here because of the security threat, people work from home, there are no buyers,” he said.

His shop lies on the Chaussee d’Ixelles in central Brussels, the Belgian and European Union capital that has been in a security lock down since Saturday over what the authorities say is a “serious and imminent” threat of an attack akin to the Nov. 13 one in Paris that left 130 people dead.

With metro system, schools, universities, shopping malls, museums, cinemas, many restaurants and shops closed in Brussels, a city of 1.2 million, business people worry about the economic costs of the tightened security.

Shops as well as tourist attractions - hotels, restaurants, museums and other culture venues - have so far been affected most visibly.

“It’s worse than the economic impact the attacks had on Paris itself. It’s the psychological effect, people are anxious, they are expecting something to happen,” said Olivier Willocx, head of the Beci chamber of commerce, which has 30,000 companies as members.

“In Paris, they want to show they have survived, that their lives go on. Here it is the opposite: it didn’t happen and people fear it will,” he said, adding that some downtown Brussels hotels saw 40 percent of bookings for last weekend canceled at the last minute.

Some tourists, especially from the United States, were calling off visits planned as long ago as February, he said.

TOURISM HURT

The lockdown comes on the eve of the Christmas tourist season that usually starts in December, a vital period for the city’s around 150 hotels. Brussels’ main Christmas fair, which attracts around a million people, is due to open on Nov. 27.

“If it only is Saturday-Monday, the businesses can handle it. If you can’t get your jeans today, you will get them next week. Museums will have a worse day or two but it will be manageable in the end,” said Sanderijn Vanleenhove, spokeswoman for the UNIZO association, which has 85,000 members among small and medium enterprises in Brussels and Flanders.

“But if it goes on for several more days or weeks - it’ll become very problematic,” she said.

Brussels had 3.3 million visitors in 2013 as tourism rebounded after a flat 2012, largely because of improving consumer and business confidence and a wider economic recovery from the financial crisis. The industry grew again in 2014, according to Brussels’ tourism office.

“We are in a recovery situation,” said ING economist Philippe Ledent. “If it’s just an emotion, it’s not a real problem. But if it is long-lasting, then there could be a deeper impact on consumer confidence and then on private consumption.”

The problem was visible at Chaussee d’Ixelles, where between a third and a half of shops were open at lunchtime on Monday. Major international companies from French book and music retailer FNAC to fashion giant H&M were closed.

McDonald’s was open - its entrance guarded by three soldiers - and some smaller or private shops were also open.

“Usually by the end of lunchtime on Monday we get 12 or 14 customers. We maybe had 3 today,” said a staff member at a small Oxfam charity shop in the same street. “This is hard.”

EXPATS AND PRALINES

The two largest cinemas in Brussels were closed over the weekend and on Monday, as was the Atomium museum, a massive stainless steel construction offering a panoramic view of the city.

Britain’s Davis Cup team with Andy Murray delayed their departure to Belgium over security but the tennis tournament is still due to take place in Ghent, 55 km (35 miles) from Brussels.

Brussels has a large expatriate community tied to the European Union and NATO, amounting to about 120,000 people, or a tenth of the entire city population.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The European Council canceled most of its meetings on Monday, with only a meeting of finance ministers of euro zone members going ahead. The European Commission said staff were told it would work normally, though with additional security measures.

NATO headquarters were open but some of its 4,000 staff were asked to work from home and external visits were canceled.

But there was some good news back in Chaussee d’Ixelles. A shop run by Leonidas, the Belgian praline manufacturer, saw just as many customers as on any other day, said sales assistant Kevin: “We are positively surprised. Maybe people just need their chocolate.”

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; editing by Giles Elgood

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