With tourists gone, Prague seeks to reset its identity

It is a very hot day in August. But when I try to cool off in my favorite cafe in downtown Prague, I find it closed.

In search of caffeine, I wander a few hundred yards further to Café Graff, a cafe on a side street a five-minute walk from Wenceslas Square. It is open but almost completely deserted. A man whom I take for a second guest turns out to be a second waiter, and watches without doing anything while his colleague takes my order.

The pattern is repeated throughout the city. Before the pandemic, the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic attracted as many as 8 million tourists – mostly foreigners – per year, making it one of the most visited cities in Europe. But the coronavirus has reduced that flooding to a trickle. In 2020, there were only 2.2 million visitors. Last month, as the pandemic abates, there was a slight recovery. But the hotel occupancy rate was still only 32%, explains Vaclav Starek, director of the Czech Association of Hotels and Restaurants.

The ripple effects have been felt throughout Prague’s tourism industry, giving a city usually packed with visitors a weirdly chilled out feel. Tourism revenues fell 80 percent last year. Many cafes, restaurants and hotels have been forced to close their doors for good. And those who survived heal their wounds.

“We have lost millions and millions of crowns [in revenue]”says Riccardo Lucque, an Italian chef turned businessman who moved to Prague in 2002 and owns a chain of upscale restaurants dotted around the city.” For us it was a huge loss, we are just surviving I haven’t made any money for a year and a half.

Yet even as Prague’s restaurants and cafes grapple with the collapse of international tourism, others hope the lull will offer a chance to restore the balance between locals and visitors that had become de increasingly imbalanced in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Restaurants and cafes in Prague grapple with the collapse of international tourism © Petr David Josek / AP

Fueled by cheap flights and the convenience of rental accommodation platforms like Airbnb, the influx of visitors had reshaped the historic center of Prague. Rather than being inhabited, the apartments were rented out to tourists, and stores formerly intended for residents were replaced by souvenir and trinket shops.

At the same time, Prague has become a magnet for stag parties, the enthusiastic drinking bouts of which have become a growing source of irritation for locals.

“If you lived in the center of the city in 2019, in some places it was very uncomfortable: there was a lot of noise, basically no infrastructure to buy food, only restaurants. . . We have to bring back the historic center for the life of the inhabitants, ”says Starek. “This is a great opportunity to change the structure of tourism.

Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague, admits that the city’s direct powers to force change are limited. He has kicked companies offering to change money at unfair rates from city buildings and issued guidelines on what advertising companies can put on their buildings to tackle what he calls “smog.” visual ”.

However, the city’s efforts to persuade the government to pass a law that would allow Prague to regulate how and for how long residential apartments can be rented out on platforms such as Airbnb – which Hrib sees as the heart of the matter. – have so far failed. bear fruit.

Starek says another approach would be to increase the number of cultural events, such as concerts, in the city to attract tourists who aren’t just looking for a festive weekend. “Like in Berlin, where people come not only to see historic attractions, which you can see once or twice, but to experience something beautiful, new,” he says.

Others, especially those at the forefront of the impact of the pandemic, are more skeptical of the prospect of a big rebalance. When I bring the idea to Lucca, he laughs. “We live tourists in this city, and you realize how much you miss them when they don’t come anymore,” he says.

Hrib, however, did not give up hope of reaching a compromise. “It was extreme before Covid and now it’s also extreme,” he says. “We would like to find a balance. . . and promote sustainable tourism for the city. There must be a happy medium. “

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Berta D. Wells