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Prague eyes tourism rebound

Tim Gosling
July 11, 2022

Tourism made up almost a third of Czech GDP before the pandemic and guests have finally started to return to the country's historic capital. But war in Ukraine and COVID-19 mean things are not back to normal quite yet.

Charles Bridge in Prague
Tourists seem to be gradually returning to the iconic European capitalImage: Micha Korb/pressefoto_korb/picture alliance

On a hot Thursday afternoon, passengers flood onto the metro train at Malostranska. The station on Prague's green line has been all but dead for the last couple of years. There's little in the vicinity save for the castle, a popular tourist site.

But the crowds on the platform, equipped with maps, baseball caps and backpacks, suggest tourism may finally be bouncing back this summer in the capital of the Czech Republic.

According to data from the Czech Statistical Office, the country hosted 2.8 million visitors in the first quarter of 2022, a sharp rise compared with the mere 280,000 visitors recorded in all of last year.

A tourist with a large backpack gets on a train from Berlin to Prague
There were fewer trains going to Prague over the last two years due to the pandemic Image: Binh Truong/Photoshot/picture alliance

That has raised optimism that the vital tourism industry is on its way to recovering from the "deep economic losses" suffered over the past two years, says Klara Mala of Prague City Tourism. "People are ready to travel again. We can see more and more tourists in the streets of Prague."

Slump in numbers

However, there's still a ways to go until a full recovery can be claimed.

The number of tourists traveling to Prague January to March of 2022 were less than half than the same period in 2019, with foreign tourists remaining particularly scarce.

Tourists walk over the Charles Bridge in Prague
The Czech capital's streets are starting to again fill with touristsImage: Micha Korb/picture alliance

Germany, which has been the largest source of tourists traveling to the Czech capital in recent years, saw just 234,290 people cross the border, compared with 407,558 people in the first three months of 2019. Other neighbors such as Poland and Slovakia, also major sources of Prague-loving tourists, saw similar declines.

Fewer tourists from Asia 

Patrick Pechac of Lucy Tours is clearly relieved that Prague is "starting to feel quite full." For the last two years, he's been living off of his savings and the meager earnings the family business was able to scrape together by giving virtual tours.

But he says that the ongoing pandemic continues to weigh on the numbers, with "tourists from China, India and other Asian countries still missing."

A young woman makes a large soap bubble in the middle of a street in Prague
Prague is still seeing few tourists from Asia and countries where long-distance travel is requiredImage: Micha Korb/picture alliance

Some are expected to return as restrictions fade, but political issues are likely to cap the number of Chinese tourists. A sharp deterioration in diplomatic relations between Beijing and Prague in recent years has wiped out tours and flight connections.

War a major challenge

The war in Ukraine is another obstacle. More than 130,000 Russians visited in January-March 2019, but they're no longer able to get visas or flights.

"Russian tourists formed a very strong segment of visitors, but they've practically disappeared," confirms Mala.

Tour operator Pechac says even the flow of visitors from the United States is being affected by the conflict.

"American clients tell us friends and family worry that they're traveling to a war zone," he said. "They see the Czech Republic and Ukraine as part of the same 'eastern European' region."

But even those that are ready to brave the "dangers" of Prague — most likely to consist of an inflated restaurant bill or taxi price — are not finding it as easy as it used to be.

The Town Hall and other buildings in the historic center as seen from above
The city hopes to attract more visitors seeking cultural experiencesImage: Micha Korb/picture alliance

On top of surging fuel prices, a pandemic-provoked reduction in the number of flights carrying visitors to Prague's Vaclav Havel International Airport isn't making things easier. 

Replacement tourists

But tourism, which drove 2.9% of the Czech Republic's GDP before the pandemic, is too important for the Czech economy to simply let things lie.

Prague City Tourism is working with CzechTourism and the Prague airport to try to attract tourists from other countries.

The Middle East including Israel is highlighted as a potential market, alongside "selected" European countries. Prague airport will particularly target the US as it seeks to revive flight capacity.

The Prague airport's director of aviation, Jaroslav Filip, said that development of direct and long-haul routes will be pursued in the coming years.

Finding a balance

But the city is aware that too many visitors can be problem as well. Close to 8 million guests arrived in Prague in 2019, fueling worries that overtourism was creating a housing crisis, damaging the fabric of the Gothic and renaissance city and blighting the lives of locals with excessive pub crawls.

Tourists stand in the square in front of Prague's Astronomical Clock
Overtourism blighted the Prague city center in the years prior to the pandemicImage: Micha Korb/picture alliance

City authorities are determined to use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to change course.

"The pandemic proved to be a temporary solution to overtourism," Mala said. "It gave us time to prepare a strategy to revive tourism in a more sustainable way by attracting more visitors that seek culture, quality gastronomy and services, and by directing flows outside the congested city center."

Pechac has more straightforward ambitions. "We hope to see tourism back to full speed next year," he says, "as long as the war ends and COVID-19 becomes just another version of the flu."

Edited by: Benjamin Restle