'I miss our staff and volunteers, the guests, the general buzz of this place'
Surreal. That is how Cees van der Vlist, general manager at Kinderdijk World Heritage Foundation (SWEK) describes his current view of Kinderdijk UNSECO World Heritage. The Visitors Centre has been shut down; the Middle Quay is all but deserted; the offices are empty.
“I miss our staff and volunteers, the guests, the general buzz of this place. It’s a surreal situation; a different situation altogether. Of course, we all understand why it has to be this way. Health is much more important than anything else,” Van der Vlist explains. The sheer speed at which Covid-19 has brought the whole world to a grinding halt obviously took the Foundation by surprise, too. In the runup to the decision to close the entire windmill area, rapid developments just kept on coming. In the space of just a few weeks, the entire short-term perspective of SWEK has been turned upside down.
“Our first concern is the care for our staff and volunteers. Right after that come the Foundation and the World Heritage itself. It’s important to hold on to each other, even if we have to do that at a distance right now. Our health takes first, second and third place, but we simply can’t avoid thinking about funding as well, inappropriate as that may feel. The closure has a devastating impact. Revenues have dropped to zero. Fortunately, our Foundation is in solid shape financially. Nonetheless, we have to keep looking ahead. Of course, the national measures arranged for remuneration of salary expenses are great. They help keep our people employed, at least for the time being. We want to make sure our team is ready and waiting for the moment when visitors start to return.”
Apart from his concern for staff and volunteers, Van der Vlist feels an explicit responsibility for the premises and the nineteen eyecatchers it contains. That explains his request towards the authorities, urging them to establish a warranty fund for the Dutch Heritage sector; a fund SWEK could surely use for support. “Maintenance is our chief expense. We had budgeted two million euros for maintenance and projects for this year alone. Tourism revenues should have covered these expenses. Structural maintenance is of the utmost importance. In the past, we have seen just what happens if you don’t invest in it here in Kinderdijk. It causes the mills to deteriorate, and that only costs more money in the end. We are asking for state-warranted credit, which we will pay back down to the very last cent over the coming years.”
In addition, Van der Vlists mentions continued employment an important reason to apply for temporary credit. “Much of the maintenance in this area is performed by specialist, such as the millwrights for example. Their businesses depend on Kinderdijk for a substantial part of their continued existence. If scheduled maintenance can proceed, it will ensure that many jobs throughout the wider area can be saved.”
Despite everything that is going on, Van der Vlist can enjoy the simple act of taking a stroll through a deserted Kinderdijk – from time to time. “You know what lifts my spirits? Seeing how nature just carries on regardless. Trees are budding, flowers start to bloom, geese are making their nests. Life goes on, in spite of the incredible impact the coronavirus is having on our lives. I find that reassuring in a way. There will be a time after corona, too. We will be giving tours to new visitors, take them along on our tour boats, and show them our museum mills once more. I’m looking forward to the moment when we can show this marvellous World Heritage to the world again.”