After a five-day lockdown prompted by the maximum security alert, Brussels officials are attempting to entice back tourists who may have been scared away by images of soldiers armed with machine guns in the capital's deserted streets. Their secret weapon? Cats. They became an unofficial mascot of the Brussels lockdown when residents flooded social media with hundreds of kitty pictures this week, after a plea from police not to share information about ongoing raids. Instead of posting updates on where police operations were happening, users tweeted images of cats, including with their paws up, disguised as police snipers, and even wearing a bowler hat, the trademark of Rene Magritte, Belgium's greatest surrealist painter. Police tweeted a picture of a bowl of cat food to thank people.
Tourism officials are now using images of cats at famous Brussels landmarks in a light-hearted attempt to lure tourists. The city shut down its subways and schools while the government asked people to stay away from public places because they might be targeted by extremists in a Paris-style attack. The threat level was lowered on Thursday, and tourism officials are optimistic that people will return to the Belgian capital, especially with the official opening of the Christmas market on Friday. The head of Brussels' tourism office says hotels reported a 20% drop in bookings this week and he agrees that cats might be the solution. "Even in a bad situation, we can also have some humor in Brussels," he says. "We're a surrealistic country." (Read more Belgium stories.)