Belgium's Tomorrowland music festival makes global impact

By Bruno Boelpaep
BBC News, Brussels

Media caption,
Tomorrowland sold 360,000 tickets in an hour

"This is a dream come true, I feel like I've jumped inside my television because in Brazil my friends and I would always watch Tomorrowland's videos and we always wanted to come here. I'm living a dream right now."

So says Rafa from Brazil, as he and his friends dance lazily on the hill overlooking the huge main stage, where superstar DJ Avicii performs live.

He is among thousands of Brazilians who made the 9,417km (5,000-mile) journey to Belgium for the Tomorrowland festival - a feast of electronic music.

It's a very diverse crowd, with many people waving their national flags from all over the world: India, Australia, Russia, Germany, Chile, Canada, Spain, South Korea - pretty much anywhere.

'A young festival'

Despite being a relatively new festival Tomorrowland - staged in countryside between Brussels and Antwerp - has emerged as one of the biggest and most popular music events in the world.

To mark its tenth anniversary the festival has added an extra weekend, doubling its usual capacity of 180,000 visitors. Despite the extension the 360,000 tickets were all sold out within an hour.

Debby Wilmsen is a press agent for the festival, and she told me that although Tomorrowland started in 2005 with only 9,000 people attending, the festival's popularity continued to grow until they began selling out after five years. "Now we have a new festival in the US called TomorrowWorld. It's all gone very fast for us."

She says the secret to their success was a word-of-mouth reputation which all began on the internet.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The festival attracts partygoers from all around the world, including these fans from Brazil
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
This year the festival extended into a second weekend, attracting record numbers of visitors
Image source, AFP
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The ambitiously creative stage is now a tradition of the festival each year
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
This year more than a quarter of a million people went to Tomorrowland
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A huge parkland space is the venue for Tomorrowland

"We do not make television or radio adverts, we don't print posters, we only use social media - so that we can have direct contact with our fans," she said.

Extravagant sets

Tomorrowland's main stage has become an icon in itself, and its ambitious designs each year help to make the festival venue instantly recognisable around the world.

In 2012 the stage was a huge volcano, erupting in fireworks. This year the stage is shaped like a giant water mill 140m (462ft) long and 40m high, surrounded by massive wheels and a huge round screen.

Fire, smoke and confetti are blasted out from the stage, settling on the artistic "valley".

The deep thumping bass follows you around the small town of Boom and the park hosting the event. The alleyways are full of happy festival-goers walking and dancing.

There are 16 stages and 400 DJs, blasting out music non-stop.

Whether you like electronic music or not, it is hard not to be swept up in the atmosphere.

Image caption,
The festival attracts some top DJs including Avicii, Skrillex, Afrojack, Steve Aoki and David Guetta

Along its eclectic, eccentric stages you'll find several lakes, a river running under a newly built bridge designed by a Belgian artist and a huge, slowly revolving wheel. As night falls the lights from the stage and the colourful street artists create a magical atmosphere.

Promoting local artists and products is an important part of the festival's ambitions.

"We have a lot of international guests coming here and we want to give them a touch of Belgian spirit. So we have Belgian fries, Belgian chefs cook meals in our restaurants and we have a Belgian beer cafe. We want to give visitors a holiday feeling with a real Belgian atmosphere," said Debby Wilmsen.

'No tolerance for drugs'

The presence of drugs is a hard reality that all festivals must deal with, and Tomorrowland's policy is clear.

"Of course we cannot control everyone, but we have police on site and we have a zero-tolerance policy. When someone is caught with drugs they are immediately expelled from the festival," she said.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The success of Tomorrowland has led to the launch of TomorrowWorld, a separate event in America

On the main stage the DJ asks the crowd to put their hands in the air and in seconds countless thousands of arms reach for the sky. Ronnie and Shani, two friends from Israel, can't stop smiling as they dance together.

"We are so happy to be here, we almost didn't make it. Our flight got cancelled because of the war [between Israel and Hamas] and we had to buy new tickets at the last minute. The only flights we could get on were to Paris, so we rented a car and here we are," says Shani.

Ronnie says "everybody is so friendly - it's nice to break away from the tense situation in our country at the moment".

As the sun sets on the fields of Boom, DJ Avicii finishes his set with his best-selling hit Wake Me Up.

Rafa and his Brazilian friends sip beers as the festival reaches its finale. "I would like to tell my children that I was here. It's something very unique, and I hope that in the future I'll be able send my son to Tomorrowland," Rafa says.

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