Rostislav Vondruska - luring tourists to, and beyond Prague

Rostislav Vondruska

Rob Cameron's guest on One on One this week is Rostislav Vondruska, head of the Czech tourist board Czechtourism. Believe it or not a famous tourist destination like the Czech Republic does need promoting, especially in order to persuade tourists to leave Prague and see what else the country has to offer.

Mr Vondruska, what exactly is Czechtourism all about?

"The very basic aim of Czechtourism is to promote the Czech Republic abroad, as a safe and nice and very popular destination."

Do you enjoy your work?

"I do, very much."

What are the best bits about it?

"I think the best thing about it is to be able to influence the perception of the Czech Republic abroad."

Charles Bridge
Talking about that perception, does a country like the Czech Republic really need a body such as Czechtourism? Surely everyone knows Prague now.

"First, the Czech Republic is not just Prague. You're right, Prague is famous and very well-known almost everywhere, since it's been a highlight of tourism for fifteen years now. But we have other very nice, interesting spots, cities and natural monuments that we feel the responsibility to present abroad."

Is it difficult getting foreign tourists out to those places? Places like Olomouc, Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, or Policky, birthplace of Martinu for example? Is it difficult getting them away from Prague and into the rest of the country?

"It depends on the individuals. Because if you have people coming to the Czech Republic for the first time, they focus on Prague and there's almost no way to get them outside."

Cesky Krumlov
Everybody just wants to see the Old Town Square, and the Jewish Cemetery etc.

"Exactly. But if you have people who are visiting the Czech Republic for the third or fourth time, I wouldn't say they are fed up with Prague, but they are already familiar with Prague so they want to see something else. They want to see the countryside too."

What is it do you think that makes this country special? What is it that draws foreign tourists to the Czech Republic?

"I think it's our enormous cultural heritage that was created in centuries past. It's also a very good geographical location. If you look at the map, you can drive to Vienna, you can drive to Berlin, and you can see the whole of Central Europe when you are based as a tourist in Prague."

Prague of course has changed enormously over the last decade, partly because of tourism. Walking around the city centre all the buildings have been renovated, everything's very brightly painted, but it does have its negative side as well. Prague used to have an air of mystery about it. It used to be a very dark, mysterious, ancient place, and now you get the feeling that you could pretty much be in any European capital anywhere.

"I wouldn't say that. I think Prague still retains its historical charm and magic. It's true that with democracy came all the negative sides. You can be ripped off, crime came to Prague, it's now a reality we need to deal with. But on the other hand, it's not that Prague has lost its charm."

Even with all the crystal shops on Karlova street, and the stands selling T-shirts saying "KGB - Still Watching You", Russian hats and so on. Does that really need to be here, because it doesn't do Prague much of a service does it?

"Not at all. I'm not rooting for those kind of shops. But this is the responsibility of the Czech authorities. And if you look at the legislation, I don't think they have many tools to influence the sortiment of these shops. But I agree this is something that needs to be sorted out, because we're not a KGB country! We have our own souvenirs that deserve attention."

Personally one of the most negative aspects of the development of tourism in the last few years is the arrival of stag parties, mainly from Britain. Large groups of guys who come over for cheap beer and cheap sex in the brothels in the city centre. Parts of the city centre seem to have been colonised almost by stag parties. There's been a huge increase in the number of cheap flights to Prague bringing them over. Is that really the image of Prague that the city should be cultivating?

"I see these cheap flights on the whole as a positive thing. The structure of the tourists that are coming from these destinations is another question. We need to work on the structure of the clientele, and of course our wish and our aim and our efforts need to be concentrated on bringing in high-end clients who don't behave in the way you describe. Clients who have even higher budgets, who enjoy going to museums and concerts and who spend a lot of money in restaurants and so on."

But how is it possible to change the profile of the clientele?

"I think we cannot really prevent stag parties, this is nothing to do with our role. But what we can do is make sure that we present Prague and its beauty to the high-end clientele in respective countries, not only the UK but also the US and so on."

But some countries have stopped them. Dublin, for example, introduced a blanket ban on stag parties. Now stag parties are no longer welcome - from England anyway - in the Irish capital.

"Well, to be honest I'm not really aware of the policies and procedures that the Irish government or the Irish tourist board introduced. It could be a necessity that awaits us in the future."

Tell me about tourists' negative experiences of coming to Prague. Where are the problems?

"I think if we're just talking about Prague, then it's the taxi drivers. They'll be a theme for some time. But I think the municipality is responsible for this, and I think it can be solved - it's not an insolvable problem. As far as ripping off is concerned, this is a risk you encounter in every big city."

But it is something that does crop up again and again if you read, say, the letters pages of the Prague Post. You read 'I loved Prague, I was very impressed, it was a beautiful city, but my holiday was ruined by an experience in a restaurant and I'll be telling my friends not to visit'. It is a problem, isn't it?

"That's true. But I think there are much more police on the streets now, and I think that's a form of prevention that really helps. Of course all the major tour operators put in their materials 'watch out for thieves, watch your purse' etc. It can't be solved 100 percent, but there is a lot that can be done."