Tourists return after floods

Floods in Prague

In this week's edition of Talking Point Pavla Horakova takes a walk in the centre of Prague and talks to foreign tourists and people from the tourist business asking them whether there is still a reason to be afraid to come and visit the country.

Charles bridge,  Prague
Only a month after the devastating floods swept over the country and brought pretty much everything - including tourism - to a halt, Prague's Old Town Square is again full of life, the clicking of cameras, street bands playing jazz music and tour guides explaining in various languages the basics of Czech history. But after the record-high waters closed hotels and restaurants and wreaked havoc on the country, the tourist business in the Czech Republic suffered heavy losses as many people decided to cancel their visits.

Miroslav Ehl is the General Secretary of the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents of the Czech Republic. I talked to him about the losses the floods inflicted upon tourism in the country.

"You're right. The Czech economy suffered some losses and also the travel agents, mainly those who specialise in incoming business. But there are also losses for those who organise trips of Czech citizens abroad because some of them were somehow hit by floods and could not really perform 100 percent and also some people coming from areas hit by the floods could not travel."

Exactly how hard has the tourist business been hit by the recent events?

"I don't have figures for the whole industry. I spoke with some travel agents and I got the information that some of them suffered 80-90 percent of cancellations, I mean groups coming to the Czech Republic. But some others show different figures. In general we must say that tourist coming from abroad to the Czech Republic are cancelling mainly for the months of September and October. How the situation is going to develop later I cannot foresee."

I also spoke to Rupprecht Queitsch who is the general manager of Prague Marriott and Renaissance Hotels.

"Immediately as the flood came we had a surge in occupancy because several hotels had to close down. So our hotels were full. But two or three days later the city seemed to empty out. Business people, the tourists, everybody just departed and that lasted for at least three weeks, four weeks, and slowly both business and tourists are coming back."

A number of hotels close to the Vltava in Prague are still closed. On the other hand some were not affected at all. Mr Queitsch says that is the case with his hotels even though they are situated in the very centre of Prague.

"We saw the water coming, it came about 300 metres close to the hotel but we were not really directly affected. We had some ground water coming in through the garage, but very minor damage."

It is understandable that people think twice before leaving for a country which has been hit by a natural - or any other - disaster. Walking around the Old Town Square, I spoke to tourists and asked them whether they had been afraid to come here or whether they regretted their decision.

"I'm from Boston; I'm from Sydney."

When did you come to the country?

"On Thursday."

Weren't you afraid of the situation after the floods?

"Not really. We were told that it's all right, that the borders have been opened and they're doing everything to clean things up and the tourist are all open. I really didn't notice it, it wasn't that bad at all."

Are there any monuments that you wanted to see and couldn't because of the floods?

"No. We were able to see everything. The only thing we noticed was walking along the river a lot of the shops and restaurants are closed but it didn't really stop us from anything."

Rupprecht Queitsch says although the events were very dramatic, things in Prague are back to normal.

"We went to see the river and it was unique, they call it the 500-year flood, so not many people will see this ever again. So it was very dramatic, it was exciting, it was newsworthy, no question about it. But the clean-up in the meantime has pretty much been finished, the city is back in order, traffic is back in order, business is back in order, surely there is still some duties that remain to be done but the theatres are open, the tourists are back, the guided tours - you can see them walking around the town again, so it's a fresh life back in the city. It's nice to see hotels full, the Old Town Square being full, people on Charles Bridge again. I think life is back to normal."

As Mr Queitsch says things are coming back to normal now, but of course, during and immediately after the floods, many sights and monuments were not accessible to visitors. Although their number has been minimised, there are places which will remain closed for a while. Miroslav Ehl of the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents.

"I'm positive that tourists are not coming to a dangerous area. There isn't any health risk in Prague or in any other area of the Czech Republic. The question is what they want to visit, what they want to see in the Czech Republic. I guess that all places are open but not to a full extent. You can visit Cesky Krumlov, you can visit Prague, you can visit other places interesting for tourist. But the question is if they can see in full extent all sights and monuments."

But certainly not all that's worth seeing in the Czech Republic has been affected by water and as Mr Ehl suggests, now may be a good time for both Czech and foreign tourists to start exploring other places than the traditional tourist spots.

"The tourism to the Czech Republic is suffering from the fact that tourists mainly concentrate on several places in the Czech Republic and they have not discovered yet other regions, other areas of the Czech Republic. And now would be probably the right opportunity because they could visit places they never thought of."

These young men from Oxford in England who are visiting Prague are having a good time here right now.

When did you come to the Czech Republic?

"Friday, the 13th."

Weren't you afraid to come here?

"No. There were good reports about it. We heard that the damage was pretty minimal and only certain areas in the town."

So all those pictures on TV didn't scare you...

"No, I can swim... Initially yes, when you see it happening, it must have been really frightening. We'd booked up as well quite a while ago - in March. So when it first happened, we thought is it going to affect our trip? But we contacted the hotel and they said we are OK, we thought we'd still come over and we've managed to see as much as we wanted to."

Floods in Prague
Immediately after the floods when the sharp drop in tourism occurred, some people compared the situation to the one in the United States, shortly after the September 11 attacks. Is that an appropriate comparison, a question I put to Rupprech Queitsch, the general manager of two top hotels in Prague.

"Not really. Water is very dangerous and we saw how dangerous it was. But it came and we maybe were not ready for it but certainly it has gone again. Terrorism is a completely different thing. It comes and the shadows are still somewhere and it could come again. I think water is more controllable, we can see it coming and we can certainly anticipate it coming so I don't think it can be compared."

Miroslav Ehl of the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents agrees.

"I don't see a similarity. The problem is that the monuments and historical sights are not available for tourists right now but there isn't any danger for tourists who come to the Czech Republic."

Of course, everybody in the business is now doing the most they can to bring tourists back to the Czech Republic. Mr Queitsch told me about a special event which will be held in Prague on Friday with the aim of promoting tourism.

"In the hotel business, several general managers got together and we planned an event which will now take place on the 20th of this month on Charles Bridge. The idea was a little bit unique and I think it will catch on. We plan to have as many cooks in their white uniforms on Charles Bridge and hope this picture will go around the world showing that we're back in business, we're back cooking again and we welcome anybody and we're just happy to receive our tourists again."

Finally, I asked Rupprecht Queitsch for his honest opinion. Would he recommend to a friend to come and spend time in the Czech Republic now?

"Absolutely. The city is as beautiful and magnificent as before. It has come very fiercely and it has gone fairly fiercely and I think Prague is as beautiful and as big an attraction as it ever was."