Prague sees significant dip in tourist numbers

Prague’s reputation as a tourist hotspot has been viewed as a given for years. But now, new statistics reveal a serious slump in visitor numbers. The reasons are the strong crown and apparently poor services. Can Prague reverse this trend? Or are there serious troubles ahead?

Almost as soon as the Velvet Revolution of 1989 rid the country of its communist rulers, the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) and in particular Prague became a hot ticket for travelers from all across the world. At first, it was curious backpackers and alternative artistic types. But soon, Prague became a top target for all kinds of visitors. It’s almost fairytale-like architecture and low prices seemed to produce a win-win situation. By the end of the nineties, tourist numbers were in the millions as Prague’s streets became packed on an almost non-stop basis with shuffling hoards following the tour guides with their raised umbrellas. But now, the situation has changed and shopkeepers and hotel owners are complaining of a slump in visitors by as much as thirty percent. What is to blame? The global economic crisis for sure; the strong crown which now has resulted in Prague becoming the 29th most expensive city in the world is also a factor. Prague’s image is also suffering – rather than glitz and culture, the capital is often associated with stag nights and a cheap place to get drunk. Yet, surprisingly, it is poor services that many are actually blaming for the slump.

Tomio Okamara is a member of the presidium and spokesman for the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents of the Czech Republic. He explained to me his take on just what was causing a slump in visitor numbers:

“The strong exchange rate of the Czech crown is not the main reason. In Europe, there are a lot of cities where price levels are much higher than in Prague – for example, London, Paris and Rome. But the problem with Prague is that we cannot give to visitors a service that corresponds to the price levels we charge. So we became a deluxe, expensive destination, but our level of service is not deluxe!”

Indeed, as soon as Prague became popular, there emerged a kind of shadow industry designed to rip-off what were viewed as rich Western tourists. Outrageous prices which were still cheap for foreigners were imposed in an almost arbitrary fashion – whatever they are willing to pay, became the attitude. Now, it seems that this practice, which has certainly lessened since the early days, has finally caught up with Prague. But not only that, Prague also appears to be suffering from something of an image crisis. Tomio Okamara explains:

“Potential tourists read in their guidebooks about Prague that the city is a dangerous destination full of thieves, problems with taxis overcharging, problems with exchange booths ripping people off and so on. So of course, if prices are at the levels they are at this year, there is simply no longer any reason to visit Prague. We have a lot of problems and we will not be able to lure foreign tourists if our politicians do not act soon.”

But providing such a boost to Prague may prove difficult. Developing a multi-faceted strategy to improve services and clamp down on fraudulent practices will take political will, and that is something that many believe is lacking in the often deadlocked Czech political process – particularly when it too is often accused of being as riddled with fraud and corruption as the aforementioned “rip-off” taxi-driver or exchange booth operator. Tomio Okamura again:

“We are still talking with the politicians; we are still trying to push them to do something but it is a problem because they totally ignore our ideas. They have the money to make a difference; they have secretaries and hundreds of staff working in the city hall. So they should be able to create and promote the Czech Republic as a safe, kind destination and if they are unable to do that, then they should simply resign their positions.”

Of course, such measures would require real pressure. But as the math becomes impossible to ignore, and tourist numbers continue to fall, Czech politicians may begin to feel that inaction could soon become very costly.