PRAGUE – 11:59AM. “Excuse me, sorry!” Rushing to my 12 O’clock class, I attempted to maneuver quickly through a sea of faces, like a swarm of bees, all gathered in front of the Astronomical Clock, awaiting a punctual greeting from the apostle figures through the windows. The next thing I knew, I was drowning in the mass of humanity, jostled by backpacks and selfie-sticks, and unintentionally photobombing a family picture.
Crowd in front of Astronomical Clock, at noon
My daily route to campus requires me to walk through Old Town Square and pass by the Astronomical Clock and Old Town Hall on the square. With a history of over 600 years, the Astronomical Clock attracts tourists from all over the world to gather around for its hourly chimes, and to see its beauty up-close. The Old Town Hall used to serve as the administrative seat for Prague’s Old Town, but it has now turned into a sight-seeing tower which charges for general admission fees.
Tourism has been growing in Prague in the recent years. According to MasterCard’s 2016 Global Destination Cities Index report, Prague is one of the top 10 most-visited travel destinations in Europe, and top 20 in the world. Based on the data from the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ), Prague welcomed over 7 million visitors in 2016, breaking its record from previous years, and with an increase of overnight guests.
“I must say this year has been very successful,” Nora Dolanská, the head of Prague City Tourism, said in an interview with Radio Praha.
Prague City Tourism, is the official tourism marketing organization of Prague. As stated on its 2016 annual report, the team’s revenue from core activities in 2016 has earned them a total of 91,000,000 CZK, with the Old Town Hall admission being the main revenue component.
“Tourism is extremely important for the economy,” said Barbora Hrubá, the Spokesperson of Prague City Tourism.
As much as tourism can bring economic and social-cultural benefits, it is impossible to ignore its downsides. Local residents in many major cities of Europe are outraged and overwhelmed by the increasing number of tourists. In July, an estimate of 2000 Venice residents took part in an anti-tourist march through the city, holding up signs and protesting against the rising rent and pollution caused by the arrivals of tourists and their cruise ships. Spanish city Barcelona has been struggling with overtourism for years. The backlash against tourism has progressively gotten worse as the streets get filled up with more and more tourists. Mayer Ada Colau of Barcelona introduced a one-year accommodation ban to curb tourist numbers in the hope to restore peace in residential areas. Many protesters are yet to be satisfied, and expect more actions from the authority.
Fortunately for Prague, there has not yet been any outbreak of violence against tourism. The Prague authority is doing its best to maintain a balance between expanding the city’s tourism industry while not to let mass tourism take over and interfere with the local lives too much.
Last Friday night I met up with some Czech friends for dinner and drinks. A glass of wine later, I asked them whether they like tourists. “No,” 20-year-old university student Ondřej shook his head without hesitation. “We don’t like the big tour groups – the ones you see everywhere in our city center,” said the 19-year-old Veronika.
Big group of tourists facing Astronomical Clock, at noon
“The city tourism is rapidly rising all around Europe and we don’t see any signs that this situation will change any time soon,” Hrubá commented on the general phenomenon of overtourism, “the situation in Prague is still thankfully very different from Barcelona.” The current biggest concern for Prague tourism scene at this point isn’t too many tourists, but too many people in quite small area of the inner historical city center. “Quality over quantity” was what Hrubá kept emphasizing throughout our interview. Prague City Tourism hopes to attract visitors to stay in Prague for a longer duration and for formal visitors to come back again. This year Prague City Tourism is promoting “slow tourism”, encouraging visitors to discover other aspects of Prague aside from the historic sites, and explore Prague’s café culture and Czech design.
“This slow tourism, this way of absorbing the city life over a great cup of coffee is the best way to enjoy the city,” said Kateřina Pavlítová, Marketing Director at Prague City Tourism.
When answering my question regarding the anti-tourism sentiment in Prague and the locals’ attitude towards tourists, Hrubá expressed that the local residents don’t hold extreme grudges against tourists. In fact, tourism could further benefit Prague’s people as locals who interact with international tourists tend to be more open-minded and have more cosmopolitan world view. Moreover, the city is cultivating public places to improve the lives of the locals. Prague City Tourism has been actively promoting other neighborhoods in their quarterly newsletters, and it has recently published two guidebooks Five Prague Walks 1 and 2, which take the readers off the beaten path to discover a different side of the city. By diluting and distributing the concentrated tourist population from the city center to other parts of Prague, it would be a win-win situation for both the tourists and the local residents.
Lastly, Prague is trying to overcome its reputation as a cheap party destination. Many international tourists still come into Prague expecting cheap beers. “We are obviously happier if such visitors come through the city without damaging public property or getting in trouble with local police,” Hrubá said the city has a lot more to offer than its budget nightlife. “Our favorite visitors enjoy the monuments, cafés, restaurants, museums trying to get to know the city and fully appreciate its atmosphere and unique character.”