Janek Rubeš: The only question I get – and there are thousands of them – is, Can we come to Prague?

Janek Rubeš, photo: Ian Willoughby

How will the coronavirus pandemic impact tourism in Prague in the longer run? Can the city really attract new kinds of visitors? And how have prices at downtown restaurants and bars been affected by the crisis? Who better to discuss those questions, and many more, with than Janek Rubeš? Rubeš’s Honest Guide videos highlight great places to see in Prague, show visitors how to steer clear of rip-offs – and regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views.

Charles Bridge,  photo: Sabina Vosecká,  Czech Radio

At the start of the crisis you were posting lots of images of deserted Prague. How did you find that period here in the city?

“Unique, in one word.

“I’ve never experienced Prague like that. The only time I can remember that Prague was like this, or the city centre was, was during the floods in 2002.

“Back then I was in New York and I could only watch it on CNN and I was really sad that I couldn’t be with my city.

“So the minute the prime minister announced there was a state of emergency and that you would not be allowed to walk outside after midnight – this was around 10 pm – I immediately hopped on my bike and rode to the city centre. And it was shocking.”

“You don’t need a global pandemic for the emptiness in Prague – you can just wake up early in the morning.”

Did the sense of “wow” at the beauty of Prague with nobody in the city centre eventually wear off for you?

“Yes. Eventually I started to miss the people.

“The city is built for people, not to be empty.

“And also you don’t need a global pandemic for the emptiness – you can just wake up early in the morning.

Kampa,  photo: Sabina Vosecká,  Czech Radio

“Right now we’re doing the interview quite early, and if we were here on a normal day it would be empty like this.

“So you don’t need the virus [laughs] for the city to be empty, to see it.

“But yes, it wore off.

“I missed the people in the city.

“They eventually came back to the parts of the city that we use, but not really to the parts that the tourists use.”

One thing I know you’ve been following is how the prices have gone in the city centre for drink and food. What has been the trend as regards prices?

“They all dropped, like three times lower, only proving the fact that Prague is two cities: one for the tourists and one for the locals.

“So pretty much all the restaurants, except for two I believe, have lowered their prices on beer and food.

“They eventually came back to the parts of the city that we use, but not really to the parts that the tourists use.”

“Because if they had kept the prices that were before the crisis, nobody would visit the place – because no Czech person would buy a goulash for 400 crowns and a beer for 130.”

To me it’s amazing that a beer now costs the same on Wenceslas Square as it does in my neighbourhood, which is around two euros.

“Yes, it’s quite interesting.

Photo: Rudy and Peter Skitterians,  Pixabay / CC0

“But, to be fair, just yesterday they raised the price by 10 crowns in one of the restaurants. So in other words it’s slowly coming back.”

Of all the fancy places, or places normally aimed at tourists, that have reduced their prices, is there any spot you’d recommend people to go to now and enjoy it while they can, if they aren’t rich?

“Yes. I’ve said this to many people: Go have that one coffee or a beer in the restaurants on Old Town Square or near the Charles Bridge – but just have one and then go to your regular, local place where you normally go, because those are the people who deserve support.

“In other words, I believe that people who try to go through the crisis by remaining normal are the ones we should support.”

“Pretty much all the restaurants, except for two I believe, have lowered their prices on beer and food.”

I recently had a conversation with somebody who said that they were hoping that all of these very average places aimed at tourists would go bust. But I was thinking, Yes, but that’s somebody’s job, and that’s somebody’s business – and you don’t have to go there anyway.

“I absolutely disagree with that.

“I hope nobody will go bust except for, like, one company that I absolutely hate and that violate the law, not by having high prices but by actually destroying the reputation of our city.

Photo: Daniel Lobo,  Flickr,  CC0 1.0

“But no, you’re right – they should be in business.”

You’ve got your finger on the pulse as regards cafés and stuff in Prague. Have many places been closing for good?

“Not that I know of.

“I know a couple of places where it’s not that the entire place has shut down but maybe the management changed – different owners took over.

“A lot of tourist shops are shut down, but most of the places are open, actually.”

When you talk to the owners of cafés, are they quite satisfied with the help they’re getting from the state? Or how are they finding things?

Malé náměstí  (Little Square),  photo: Rob Williams,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC 2.0

“Well once again, the ones that were aiming at locals from the beginning, they are getting back to normal more easily – because they got the locals back.

“But the ones that were strictly aiming at tourists are I think having harder times, especially if you look at the restaurants on Old Town Square.

“They have a patio for 200 people but you will not get that from the locals there. And there are so many of them.

“I mean, look at Malé náměstí, near Old Town Square, it’s not Malé náměstí, it’s not Little Square, it’s a giant restaurant that is now empty.

“So when you think about it, you don’t really need five different restaurants on that square – maybe you’d be fine with just one and maybe some other stores.”

“Look at Malé náměstí, near Old Town Square, it’s not Malé náměstí, it’s not Little Square, it’s a giant restaurant that is now empty.”

You mentioned some of the shops that are definitely aimed at tourists, with lots of glass stuff and bright lights, that they haven’t opened. But I’ve seen that some have reopened and I wonder, who are they aiming at, or who is going into these places?

“I do not know. I honestly don’t know.

“I saw that some of the places that sell the Czech glass also started selling facemasks.

Czech glass shop,  photo: Morgan Thiesson Stavostrand,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“But I would ask this question not only now but even before the pandemic – because I do not know who buys stuff in these stores.

“And it’s not like tourists walk in and out, so I don’t understand how their business works. But somehow it does.”

This feels like a unique chance for the Prague authorities to have a bit of a think about how they would like the city to develop into the future. What do you think Prague should be learning at the moment from the situation, about how it should develop going forward?

“I’ve been asked this question and maybe you should ask the city if they have actually done something.

“From what I know, they were trying to aim at local tourists, to bring more locals – I mean domestic tourists – to the city.

“But from what I know, they were very late with any campaign.

"And also I don’t think you need to have any campaign – when you drop the price of beer on Old Town Square, that’s a campaign in itself and the campaign is done by the media.

“I don’t think you need to have any campaign – when you drop the price of beer on Old Town Square, that’s a campaign in itself and the campaign is done by media.”

“Just like you. If somebody is listening to us right now from a small city, they may think, Oh, there’s cheaper beer on Old Town Square – I don’t need a billboard to lure me in for that.

"But other than that, I don’t know any steps that they did that could improve the life in the city centre.”

I’ve heard a lot about how Prague is planning to refocus and to try to attract a different kind of tourist, to have not have stag groups, to be less trashy. Do you think that’s achievable?

“No. I don’t think it is.

Old Town Square,  photo: Prague City Tourism

“Just the fact that now the city is aiming at local tourists – they suddenly woke up…

“The Czech saying is, Teď jsme vám dobrý, what’s that in English? Now we’re good enough for you.

“So yes, if I was a Czech person and the City of Prague would be telling me, Come to Prague – you really should visit, I’d be like, Oh, so now you remember I’m here?

“And to be fair and actually poke at the city a bit – not only the restaurants dropped the prices three times, even the city did that.

“On the lookout tower on Old Town Square where the astronomical clock is, the entrance was 250 crowns and now it’s 125.

View from Old Town Hall tower to the roofs in Prague,  photo: Tiia Monto,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“So they’re also admitting that they were only aiming at foreigners that have more money.

“Because I’m sure you’ll agree that 250 crowns for entrance to a tower is a lot and if a Czech person from a smaller city saw that, they would not be happy with it.”

Do you think the tourists will come back in the same way they were here before? For example, how do you think Prague will look in the summer of 2021?

“Oh, the same as it looked in 2019. I’m pretty sure about that. I mean, I guess [laughs].

“I can see the prices of air fares are so low now. Ryanair has been sending emails, the same as other airlines, to try to get people moving.

“A lot of Germans are now in the city, a lot of Austrians, because the borders are opened.

Honest Guide Facebook page

“So I think it will be quite fast for the tourist life in the city to get back to how it was before.”

Do you many people, potential tourists I guess, contacting you, asking for information on how Prague is looking, how things are going here?

“The only question I get – and there are hundreds of them, thousands of them – is, Can we come, can we come to Prague?

“When we published a map on our Honest Guide Facebook page saying that the borders with Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia had opened there were just hundreds of comments asking, What about Poland? What about Germany? Can we travel? Please let us know.

Source: CooBoo publishing house

“Somehow people come to us asking how they can travel to Prague.

“So I’m imagining how they’re banging the door at our borders and they really want to come in to Prague.”

During the lockdown, Honest Guide celebrated the fourth anniversary of its foundation. You do a lot of work that’s basically aimed at tourists or potential tourists – people who want to come to Prague and have a good time and not be screwed. How is this whole thing affecting your business?

“Well we make videos and people watch them at home usually [laughs], so our business was just fine.

“We had a lot fun doing videos in my kitchen and at my house.

“Because people don’t really watch Honest Guide only to come to Prague – they want also want to know more about the city or the country.

Trdelníks,  photo: MOs810,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“So we’ve been baking trdelníks [chimney cakes] at home, we had a scam museum in my garden, we’ve been talking about a lot of stuff – and people were entertained and they liked it.”

Obviously you care about Prague a lot. If you see something you don’t like, you point it out publicly on social media. Do the Prague authorities respond when you say, Somebody’s doing something illegal, or This is questionable, or whatever?

“Sometimes they do. Usually they will explain to me, or tell me the excuses why they can’t handle it.

“Sometimes I already know the excuses, so I feel like I should help them give me the argument as to why they can’t deal with that.

Hana Třeštíková,  photo: Archive of Hana Třeštíková

“But I would like to say that we not only point the finger – we try to also sometimes by ourselves.

“And I don’t mean that we’re handcuffing people [laughs], but if we see something that we know can be changed by explaining it, or just solving it, then we do it.”

Do they ever consult you? Would the mayor, for example, call you in for a meeting?

“You know, he never did. But we met multiple times and we do consult things.

“I do regularly, monthly, go to the tourist commission of Prague, which is held by Hanička Třeštíková, so I do hear what they’re plans are.

“But I try to remain on the side where I can criticize – in a good way, I don’t want to only say, This is bad what you’re doing.

“But I sort of want to be in opposition to them, a bit.”

Earlier in this crisis I was thinking, That’s it, the world has changed. We will not be travelling like we were before and I will never go again for a long weekend to Amsterdam or somewhere like that. But was I jumping the gun? Was I too negative or paranoid?

Photo: Alec Wilson,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“We all were. I mean, it was a rollercoaster.

“We’ve all been going through different stages where we afraid to even look at people and then we were hugging people.

“So it was your choice to feel like that. And maybe in a week you’ll feel like that again – who knows?”

But – this is really my question – will people travel again in the same way, popping on a plane and just going to, yeah, Prague or Barcelona or some place for those kind of long weekend city breaks a few times a year?

Direct train from the Czech Republic to Croatia,  photo: Archive Regiojet

“I hope they will. I really hope they will.

“And if there’s one positive change that I saw in travelling just recently, it’s that they’ve opened a new direct railroad connection to Croatia and the company who did it immediately said that they sold out the tickets, within minutes of them going on sale.”

This is maybe not your area exactly, but do you think flying will again be as cheap as it was before this?

“I do remember how September 11 changed the whole industry and how it’s absolutely normal now for us to almost get naked at the border controls and so on.

Attacks on New York  (2001),  photo: Robert,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“But I hope that this will not change it as much. Because you don’t have that one symbol for the whole pandemic, don’t you think?

“During the attacks on New York, we can all picture that one image that will always remind us forever.

“But with this it’s invisible so you don’t really have something to recall in your memory – what was that danger that we were facing.”

Personally how hard you find the lockdown? I had moments where I was really freaking out. How did you find it?

“I was walking a lot in Prague.

“I wasn’t getting in touch with people, but I don’t think there was a day when I wouldn’t leave my house.”

And how did affect your mental state?

“It was weird.

“You know what the scariest part was – when people started to be scared of each other.

Photo: Valerie Reneé,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“That’s when I though, Whoa, this is the dangerous part.

“That’s what terrorism did to us – that you look at people of different nationality or colour and you think, Oh, he might be dangerous.

“And suddenly this was, Everybody’s dangerous.

“So I would go running and somebody would see me and they would do a big loop around me and I go, Wow, so now we’re scared of each other? That’s scary.”