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For three months, people in Belgium have been trapped not only inside their tiny country, but also inside their city of residence.
Belgium closed its borders in mid-March in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, forbidding people from either coming in or going out unless it was for an essential reason. The borders reopened on 15 June, a godsend particularly for the many cross-border communities where people cross the normally invisible border daily. Borders between European Union countries have been as akin to those between U.S. states since the Schengen Agreement in 1995.
During the lockdown, even travel within Belgium was forbidden. People could not leave their towns except for essential reasons, and at some points guards were stations at the roads leading out of the capital of Brussels to check peoples’ reasons for leaving. Trips within the country have been allowed again since 8 June.
The end of the lockdown has meant new possibilities to travel, both inside and outside the country. But travel abroad will be anything but clearcut, with the reimposition of border controls and cancellation of flights possible this summer. For those with concerns about international travel, the Belgian government has given them a major incentive to take a Belgian ‘staycation’ instead: free rail journeys for the rest of the year to anywhere in the country.
Every Belgian resident aged 12 and over will be entitled to a “national tour” rail pass giving them 12 free journeys, in an attempt to boost the country’s tourism sector which suffered badly from the lockdown. The free journeys can be claimed at a rate of two per month, from August 2020 to January 2021. Bikes will also be able to travel on trains for free starting on 1 July, avoiding the normal charge of €4 per bike.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told VTM News that the intention is “to get domestic tourism back on track because the trains are severely underutilized”.
While citizens and the domestic tourism sector may be happy about the plan, the country’s rail operator isn’t. Sophie Dutordoir, the CEO of Belgium’s state rail operator SNCB, said they had not been consulted about the government’s plan. She has raised concern over the health implications of cramming so many people onto trains, as well as who will pay for this scheme, which SNCB estimates will cost at least €100 million.
This article first appeared on www.forbes.com
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