UNESCO status: The pros and cons for Czech sites

Český Krumlov, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Czechia has 12 cities, towns and other historic sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They are as diverse as the magnificent center of Prague and rural cottages in the village of Holašovice in the South of Bohemia. Does inclusion on the prestigious list still help local authorities to keep them preserved? And aren’t the growing crowds of tourists becoming more of a problem? Vít Pohanka looked for the answers, both in the Czech Republic and at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

Český Krumlov,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The official promotional video for Český Krumlov shows beautiful high-resolution views of this fairy-tale town in the south of Bohemia. It was officially included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1992.

According to its mayor, Dalibor Carda, this gave Český Krumlov the right positive impulse at the right time:

Český Krumlov,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“Yes, because it took pretty much all the strength of the town to represent the Czech Republic and also itself on the world stage. So, the positive change after joining the UNESCO World Heritage List has been incredible. There is absolutely no comparison between what the Český Krumlov town center looks like today to what it looked like some 30 years ago, or even before the second world war. The town is in great shape and prepared for tourists. It has really become one of the most significant tourist sites in Europe.”

But even mayor Carda admits that Český Krumlov is becoming a bit of a victim of its success. The small town has only about 13,000 inhabitants but it needs services for a city several times its size. Indeed, there are so many visitors that the town hall had to put some restrictions on the number of large groups of visitors, who typically come in buses from Prague or neighboring Austria:

“We implemented an electronic evidence system that monitors bus reservations in advance. Our Český Krumlov Development Fund, which tracks the reservations, has already received 3500 reservations for tourist trips. All in all, it comes to about 170 buses per day and 3500 people from them, plus individual visitors. While I was driving yesterday, I noticed that our biggest parking lot is already completely filled up with cars. So, when you add everything up, our town significantly grows during the tourist season. We have about the same amount of waste as a city with 45 or 50 thousand people.”

Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk,  photo: Magdalena Kašubová

Two hundred kilometers away from Český Krumlov you will find the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, another Czech World Heritage Site. On a typical summer weekend, it is also very busy. The mayor of the nearby town of Žďár nad Sázavou is Martin Mrkos:

“The city starts to be livelier; people spend money and, generally, there is a positive social and economic impact. Of course, there is a negative side, which shows itself when too many tourists arrive to visit, and the capacity and infrastructure of the town is simply not enough to handle the flow.”

But what does that realistically mean for the town’s economy? Is it not the case that the tourists show up, look at the castle and then leave again, without spending money in local businesses?

Well, you can look at it that way and, to a certain extent, I agree with you. Tourists who come here to see the UNESCO site don’t spend two or three days here, nonetheless it is assumed that tourists at least go to the cafes, ice cream shops and that they buy souvenirs. So, there is at least a minimal economic benefit.

Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The Czech capital Prague, or more precisely its historic center, has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992.

Jan Kasl was the city’s mayor in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now he is the president of the Czech Chamber of Architects and this puts him in a unique position to explain the PROs and CONs of the inclusion of a city in the World Heritage List:

“Being on the List, of course, means that you are kind of under a microscope. You have some limits and you have a domestic legislature that should try to comply with the sort of action that UNESCO requires. But if that sort of thing is not embedded in you or your society, if it is not shared by the individuals, then some organization cannot make it happen. It can impose sanctions, which is perhaps a needed course of action (especially for Czech society). But that is all it can do.”

Pankrác high-rises,  Prague,  photo: Šjů,  CC BY 4.0
In other words: it is up to local authorities and people who live in such places to take care of their own heritage. UNESCO only recognizes their significance, it does not provide the financial and other resources for the upkeep of these sites. And in some cases, the advice of UNESCO experts can even be counter-productive, says architect Jan Kasl:

“Sometimes there are unnecessary restrictions. For example, a group of observers came to Prague and stopped the constructions of several unfinished high-rises in Pankrác, which were planned in 2000 by the American architect Richard Meier to be the highest buildings in Prague. These buildings do not, at least according to me, decrease the historical value of the historic center of Prague, Pankrác is not a part of it. These building would not have any aesthetic or physical impact on the center. But because of the opinion of the experts, the whole project was, unfortunately, greatly reduced and to this day some parts are still left unfinished.”

The 12 Czech sites, included in the list are not in any way controversial. Nobody doubts their right to be included. Nevertheless, after nearly three decades of membership in this elite club, Czech local authorities are starting to better understand that UNESCO status means not just privileges but also responsibilities.