‘A Historical Disneyland’ – The Trouble with tourism in Prague.

It is likely few of the demonstrators before 1989 could have envisaged Old Town Square as it is today. Every hour a colourful mass of tourists from all over the world assemble shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the Astronomical Clock, a cosmopolitan spectacle that is a far cry from the once closed borders of the Czech Republic’s communist regime. This year in particular is shaping up to be the biggest year for tourism in Prague thus far. However, a substantial increase in the number of visitors does come at a price.

Travel? Czech! met with Barbora Hrubá, the official spokesperson of Prague City Tourism, to discuss why the industry is flourishing across Europe and the practical problems that this can raise for local residents struggling to adapt.

TC: 2017 is expected to be the biggest year for tourism in Prague so far. Why do you think business is growing at such a rate?

BH: Tourism is growing massively all around Europe. City tourism specifically is on the rise. We can now see that the numbers are getting higher and higher. For example, 2016 saw more than 7,135,000 people in Prague which itself is an increase of almost 8% from the year before. In general, this is part of a new trend. The connections are getting better and the travel is getting cheaper. The infrastructure for tourists is more convenient so more people are deciding that these places make ideal getaways.

TC: Clearly there have been great changes to former socialist countries and those that were a part of the Soviet Union. How do you think Prague has itself been marketed to become a mainstream cultural destination?

BH: It wasn’t really for quite some time. As you mentioned prior to the year 1989 we can’t really talk much about tourism as the borders were closed. It then started slowly changing. We’re here in the centre of Prague City Tourism which is a company that has been around for 60 years. We work with businesses that see the opportunities in tourism and try to market Prague for what it is. There have also been recent efforts to dispel the image of Prague as a destination for stag parties and cheap alcohol.

TC: How do you think social media has affected the industry in recent years?

BH: Social media has a huge impact on any business anywhere in the world. We co-operate with bloggers, use social media ourselves and constantly see the effects. People react fast and it can inspire them to travel. It is basically costless, quick and very efficient for us as a business.

TC: Similarly we are seeing a lot of technological advancement and innovation within the industry, popular new trends such as Segway tours or the advent of Airbnb. What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of these developments?

BH: We are of course happy with some of these developments. For example, smart cities use technology to improve standards for both locals and tourists. However, segways are a controversial topic in Prague as they were recently banned in the city centre. More areas in the city are trying to prevent their use. Around Old Town’s old cobblestone streets it was quite dangerous and a lot of accidents were happening.

A shared economy is a huge topic in discussions about city tourism and tourism worldwide. Prague is now discussing how to regulate Airbnb. We would not like to ban it completely as New York did. For us, we know there are tourists that want to experience the city differently and not just stay in a standard hotel in the city centre.  Ideally, Airbnb would show the wider city or quarters or more suburban areas. Unfortunately, it’s not really the case as the majority are located in the city centre. I know someone who has fifteen apartments that they are renting in the city centre. This is problematic as it operates like a real business that can avoid tax and fees. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t like to ban it completely because we see the shared economy can be very helpful.

There are a lot of problems and complaints. The Airbnb providers cannot be forced to pay the tourist tax. We who live here pay taxes that go towards repairing the infrastructure. That’s what the tourist tax is for. So when there are people avoiding this tax it is not fair for the hotels and other institutions. Also there have been a lot of complaints from people that live in the buildings that contain Airbnb properties. I have personal experience living near one and the constant parties can be very disturbing for locals.

TC: You just touched upon local complaints. Generally speaking, how do you feel the locals respond to such a noticeable tourist presence?

BH: It is getting worse and worse. We can see that too much tourism is becoming a problem not only in Prague but in other cities such as Barcelona, where locals are protesting and there are demonstrations in the streets. We are talking about this with the European Cities Marketing Organisation and it has helped modify our marketing strategy. Tourism is extremely important for the economy. One in ten people living in Prague work in tourism directly. In addition, look at the shops and restaurants that would close because they would lose their customers. It simply brings in a lot of money. But with regards to the infrastructure, there are too many people for the city to be able to withhold. Locals are moving out of the centre and we are a step away from becoming a historical Disneyland.

As harsh as it might sound, our strategy is not targeting young backpackers. It’s not that we do not want these people here, it’s that we need the same amount of money provided by less people. We are targeting a further market, specifically Latin America or Asia, for wealthy people to come here and spend more time and money. For those that already are here we understand that we cannot ban them from coming. We have a campaign that is promoting other parts of Prague apart from the Old Town and the Lesser Quarter. We are trying to show that there are places which have a lot to offer but that are not directly in the centre of the city.

TC: So business is effectively booming for Prague tourism. However as has been made clear in recent years, many European cities are targets for terror attacks. How do you think the tourist trade adapts to this threat?

BH: At this point, on behalf of Prague City Tourism, we do not have any plans established or even talk about it. We do not have a strategy for how to deal with these things. We do not predict it to happen or expect it to happen. Of course, the intelligence services and the police have strategic planning but we do not at this point. There have been a few emergency situations where we’ve had to react. For example, with the severe floods in 2013. With terrorism we could expect something like this happening but there is not a particular detail planned in that event.

TC: Where do you see tourism in 10 years?

BH: From what is happening now, it is very hard to say as tourism is getting cheaper. Way more people can afford travelling than before and this is not just due to low-cost flights. There is also Airbnb and hostels. People can travel for only hundreds of euros. But on the other hand, there is a backlash from the locals and tourism is one of the most sensitive industries. For example, from the statistics we see a huge change from 2008. Tourism is the most sensitive to economic crisis because travelling is the first thing that people will stop doing. That can change a lot. Also as you’ve mentioned the terrorist attacks that are obviously unpredictable and they have a huge impact. The tourism does get back on track quite fast – in Paris they started getting more visitors after only three months. We are very unsure where this is going to go. We have to stop the massive tourism as Prague cannot take any more people. Neither can Barcelona or Amsterdam. So we will see where this is going to go.



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