Marooned in a sea of slagheaps, derelict factories and litter-strewn wasteland, the Belgian city of Charleroi is one of Europe’s most unlikely tourist destinations.
The grim former coal-mining community is best known in Belgium for having the highest suicide and unemployment rates in the country.
The southern blackspot is even warning it will become more run-down in the current global financial crisis – having never really recovered from the previous two recessions.
But now, following a poll voting it the world’s ugliest city, it is suddenly teeming with visitors willing to pay to see for themselves how relentlessly bleak Charleroi really is.
Several businesses have sprung up since the survey, carried out in neighbouring Holland, offering “urban safaris” around some of the city’s drabbest “attractions”.
Tourists on the guided tours can climb a slagheap, inspect acres of post-industrial wasteland and visit the now demolished home of notorious child killer Marc Dutroux.
They can also see the apartment block of one of Charleroi’s other notorious former residents – the world’s first white female suicide bomber Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up in Baghdad in 2005, after marrying an Islamic radical.
One tour operator, Nicolas Buissart bragged that trips around the town – whose airport is a hub for low-cost airline Ryanair – were fully booked for the next two months.
He said: “Visitors are genuinely appalled at the true hideousness of our town. Even as they fly in, they are shocked at the landscape of filth, slagheaps and wasteland.
“It looks like the very worst of the Russian communist era. It is a truly grim spectacle to behold.
“We take people around in a fairly decrepit old coach, visiting all the ugliest places – but the choice is actually endless because so little of the town has anything to offer.
“Hopefully it makes visitors leaving feeling lucky about where they live themselves.”
Even locals complain socialist-run Charleroi, with a population of 200,000, is “a complete dump”.
Shopkeeper Stephan Reignier said: “It is a monstrosity. The whole place should be bulldozed and rebuilt from scratch.”
In an attempt at positive spin smacking of desperation, the regional tourism website could only say of the city: “Charleroi has fun and does not take itself seriously.”
Since Mr Buissart began tours of his home town, other rival firms have now set up and tourism had tripled in the past three months, Charleroi’s town hall said.
A spokesman added: “It is not really anything to boast about, but in the short term a huge boost in tourist revenue could help fund some very badly needed regeneration of our town.”