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It is a fiercely hot day in August. But when I try to duck into my favourite coffee shop in Prague’s city centre for refreshment, I find it is closed.
On the hunt for caffeine, I traipse a few hundred metres further to Cafe Graff, a coffeehouse in a side street five minutes’ walk from Wenceslas Square. It is open but almost completely deserted. A man I take for a second guest turns out to be a second waiter, and watches idly while his colleague takes my order.
The pattern is being repeated across the city. Before the pandemic, the Czech Republic’s beautiful capital attracted as many as 8m — mostly foreign — tourists a year, making it one of the most visited cities in Europe. But coronavirus has reduced that flood to a trickle. In 2020, there were just 2.2m visitors. Last month, as the pandemic eased, there was a slight pick-up. But hotel occupancy was still just 32 per cent, says Vaclav Starek, head of the Czech Association of Hotels and Restaurants.
The knock-on effects have been felt across Prague’s tourism industry, giving a city usually packed with visitors an oddly decompressed feel. Tourism revenues plunged 80 per cent last year. Many cafés, restaurants and hotels were forced to close their doors for good. And those who have survived are licking their wounds.
“We 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 string of upmarket restaurants dotted around the city. “For us it was a huge loss, we are just surviving. I haven’t made money for a year and half.”
Yet even as Prague’s restaurants and cafés grapple with the collapse in international tourism, others hope that the lull will provide a chance to reset the balance between locals and visitors, which had become increasingly lopsided in the years before the pandemic.
Prague’s restaurants and cafés are grappling with the collapse in international tourism © Petr David Josek/AP
Fuelled by cheap flights and the convenience of accommodation rental platforms such as Airbnb, the influx of visitors had reshaped Prague’s historic centre. Rather than being lived in, flats were rented out to tourists and shops formerly catering to residents were replaced by stores selling souvenirs and trinkets.
At the same time, Prague became a magnet for stag-dos, whose enthusiastic carousing became a source of increasing irritation for locals.
“If you lived in the centre 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 need to bring the historical centre back for the lives of locals,” says Starek. “It’s a great opportunity to change the structure of tourism.”
Zdenek Hrib, Prague’s mayor, concedes that the city’s direct powers to force through change are limited. It has expelled companies offering to change money at unfair rates from city buildings, and issued guidelines about what advertising businesses can put on their buildings in order to fight what he calls “visual smog”.
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 flats can be rented out on platforms such as Airbnb — which Hrib sees as the heart of the problem — have so far failed to bear fruit.
Starek says that another approach would be to boost the number of cultural events, such as concerts, in the city to draw tourists who are not just looking for a weekend of partying. “Like in Berlin, where people are coming not just to see historical attractions, which you can see once or twice, but so they can experience something nice, something new,” he says.
Others, especially those at the sharp end of the pandemic’s impact, are more sceptical about the prospect of a grand rebalancing. When I mention the idea to Lucque, he laughs. “We are living from tourists in this town, and you realise how much you miss them when they are not coming any more,” he says.
Hrib, however, has not given up hope of achieving a compromise. “It was extreme before Covid and now it is also extreme,” he says. “We would like to find a balance . . . and promote sustainable tourism for the city. There has to be a middle way.”