Record number of visting Britons, Russians, and even 'dollar tourists' expected in 2005

The state-run tourist authority predicts that the number of foreigners visiting the Czech Republic will jump another 10 percent this year, on top of the 15 percent rise noted in 2003, the first year after the "hundred-year" floods that swept through Central Europe and nearly dealt a knock-out blow to the industry.

The state agency CzechTourism and the private Association of Czech Travel Agencies, this week presented the results of their joint research into prospects for the domestic tourist industry. Their prediction: in 2005, the country will host some 8.47 million foreign tourists, nearly a million more than last year.

The survey was presented by CzechTourism director Rostislav Vondruska. It showed that by far the greatest number of foreign tourists last year were from neighbouring Germany, with nearly 2 million visiting the Czech lands. In 2004, some 800,000 Slovaks crossed into the Czech Republic on holiday. The agency expects a 3 to 5 percent increase in their numbers this year, and about the same for Austria. The only decrease has been in the number of Poles taking holidays here.

Last year, just shy of 365,000 visited their neighbour to the south, but in 2005, the number of Polish visitors is expected to drop 5 percent. In part this is because, like the Czech Republic, Poland joined the European Union in May of 2004 and its citizens now enjoy visa-free travel to much of the world. CzechTourism has plans to launch an aggressive advertising campaign to attract more Poles.

The anticipated number of visitors from the United Kingdom is expected to jump 30 percent this year, in large part due to the flowering of budget-airlines routes run by carriers like EasyJet; Prague is expected to eclipse Paris as the number one weekend holiday destination for Britons.

Despite a weak dollar, the CzechTourism director says that travel agencies expect a 20 percent increase in the number of tourists from the United States in 2005; but then, the drop off in American tourists was greater in 2004 than for most other countries.

Even so, "dollar tourists" aren't necessarily the biggest fish in the sea that the land-locked Czech Republic should look to hook, says Jaromir Beranek, the director of the marketing and research firm Mag Consulting.

"As for the 'dollar tourists' who come from regions like Japan, China or directly from the U.S., there really are signs of certain stagnation. Of all tourists, however, the dollar tourists make less than one fourth. So we have to be more active with respect to those countries, from which we get most tourists. On the other hand, we do have to appreciate any Chinese or Japanese tourist, we have to spoil those because they in most case spend much more money here than an average German pensioner who goes to a spa."

In total last year, 7.7 million tourists visited the Czech Republic, up 15 percent from 2003. They spent some 108 to 110 billion crowns, or 8 to 10 percent more than in the previous year.

In 2005, CzechTourism expects that amount could grow by another 7 percent, 118 billion crowns — a level not seen since the "9/11" terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001 and the onset of the Bush Administration's "War on Terror," followed by the SARS epidemic in Asia — and disastrous floods that hit the Czech Republic in August 2002 at the height of the tourist season.

Mag Consulting predicts only a slight increase in the number of foreign tourists in 2005; from 7.6 million last year, to 7.8 million this year. Jaromir Beranek rejects assertions by some travel agencies that CzechTourism's advertising huge campaign carried on major international networks like CNN and the BBC last year — under the slogan "Come to Slow Down" and featuring a snail — was a flop.

Photo: Archive of Radio Prague
"I think that the campaign was very well timed and that the snail was a certain symbol of peace and mainly security. In recent years, the issue of security has definitely become a greater factor. Also, recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that security is an important part of the travel industry. I have to stand up for this advertising campaign of last year, which was - before its launch — judged by many travel industry experts. In my opinion, it was very successful."

CzechTourism's overall optimism for attracting foreign tourists this year stems from the growth of the German economy, with Germans being the largest group of foreigners visiting the Czech Republic, possibly surpassing two million for the first time in five years.

British tourists could be the second largest group this year for the first time in history, as 969,000 may arrive, most of them taking advantage of the cheap flights. A remarkable 35 percent increase in the number of Russian tourists is also anticipated, based on the hope that current moves to further streamline the visa regime will be successful.

The president of the Association of Czech Travel Agencies, Ladislav Havel, says that great strides have also been made in the services sector as a whole.

Taxi drivers who overcharge tourists, unclean pay toilets, rude waiters, bad food, poor translations or none at all... These problems — major complaints of tourists coming to the Czech Republic a decade ago — while not totally eradicated, are gradually disappearing, says Havel, and word of mouth is spreading about the increasingly tourist-friendly Czech Republic.