Prague was and remains one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but for how long? The Czech capital is an amazing collection of medieval, renaissance, baroque, rococo and turn-of-the-century buildings and monuments. Almost each house in the city center is like reading into a giant book of world’s architectural history.
During the communist years, Prague was largely ignored by visitors as the regime was not particularly welcoming. The opening up of the country changed, however, dramatically Prague’s tourism destiny. From roughly 1.30 million foreign visitors in the early nineties, Prague welcomed over four million of them last year. The city also is Europe’s sixth most visited city, according to the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents of the Czech Republic (AČCKA).
Since 2004, the year the Czech Republic joined the European Union, total number of tourists grew by 16 percent. EU integration generated a boom in low-cost airlines and a rise in the total number of hotel rooms. In August 2008, there were 15 airlines serving Prague with a total of 89,970 weekly seats available (28 percent of the total airline’s capacity). By comparison, in 2004, Prague airport welcomed 13 low-cost carriers with a total of 54,066 weekly seats. It is a jump of 66 percent in just four years. Hotel capacity went up from 31,387 rooms in 2004 to 34,371 rooms up by 9.5 percent.
Prague’s historical heart was carefully rejuvenated over the last two decades. Despite the fact that the 866-ha historical district became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, little protection to limit the centre’s over-commercialisation took place. Prague is losing its authenticity and is turning to an exquisite baroque decorum. Souvenir vendors, t-shirts shops, Irish pubs and beer gardens expand at quick pace, invading any corner of the old town. Museums with a more or less valuable content settled in many old houses, documenting from medieval torture up to the gloomy days of communist times.
Summer is especially challenging as cafe terraces and beer gardens completely took over the Old City Square (Staromestke Namesti). Tourists are almost queuing along narrow streets to walk from the Old City Square to famous Charles Bridge. The latter with its graceful medieval architecture surrounded by baroque statues has been turned into a handicraft shopping centre, with sellers and their booths disturbing the historical bridge perspective by visually hiding surrounding monuments and statues. To add to the picture, many places that used to be free before, such as toilets in the Prague Castle or old gardens in Mala Strana district, can now be entered only for a fee.
It seems that tourism growth remains anarchic as Prague municipality looked for the cheap buck of mass tourism. Prague’s historical centre is turning into a Disneyland as they are barely any locals still living there. Walking at 6:00 am (which is the best time to admire Prague without hordes of tourists) around the old town, there is no sight of a coffee shop, a newsstand or a grocery opened, illustrating that the historical centre wakes up at the same time than its visitors.
To add to the pictures, turning a city into a huge tourist park brought also a lot of undesirable people. Gangs of pickpockets, unscrupulous taxi drivers and cheating foreign exchange places make regularly headlines in many foreign newspapers.
So far, Prague has, however, been able to address a common tourist complain: taxi cheating. Since 2007, special taxi stands (named “Fair Taxi Places”) have been set up all around the city indicating that taxis there are charging the official fares shown on a board. And it works as complaints again taxi drivers dropped sharply since the measure being introduced a year ago.
Will Prague authorities be able to understand that the quick “tourist” buck has definitely spoiled what used to be one of the most atmospheric cities in Europe? It is hard to imagine as long as the pursuit of quick cash will prevail over the sense of beauty.