I hear about the business and political corruption in the Czech Republic, and I think, well, what about the US? People dwell on this or that problem and it occurs to me that maybe certain foreigners and academics just need to have something to talk about, to make them feel needed, or if not actually needed, then at least that’s there’s some general reason for them to be here in the first place. It has become my habit to return to Prague every year or so for a few months at a time, and for the most part everything looks all right to me – particularly when I’m carrying a fairly well-padded wallet in my back pocket.
But the longer I stay, the harder it is for me to remain silent about certain things, including, what I regard as the travesty taking place in the city center as a result of too much of a good thing gone unchecked. The argument over sausage stands in Wenceslas Square is but the tip of the iceberg, and largely misses the point. The intermittent hand wringing regarding the stag parties is not enough. What’s needed is a top down rethinking of how to handle mass scale tourism.
It often annoys me that all these years later, so many continue to speak of Eastern and Western Europe as if they’re somehow still two separate entities; but flying into Dublin a few weeks ago, I was reminded why some might choose to do so. In a word, people continue to distinguish one from the other because they remain distinct. Dublin airport is state of the art 2012 Western Europe, pure and simple; on the surface the Prague airport is similarly modern and spic-and-span, far from the sorry state of eastern bloc airports once upon a time, but such is not to say that it’s exactly kept up.
Consider the difference in eating choices: The Dublin airport had a multitude of conveniently located restaurants accommodating a wide range of tastes and expense accounts, typical of state of the art airports the world over. Not so, the Prague airport. I could have eaten upstairs in the sort of depressing school-like cafeteria, or maybe the other restaurant up there that seems never to be open, or in one of the bars or cafes on the first floor. I ended up eating at the Pilsner Restaurant, or maybe it’s just called the Pilsner Bar, I don’t remember for sure, but what I do know is all the lower floor restaurants/bars/cafes offered, more or less, the same thing. On the day I was there each featured a goulash soup with a pretzel for – if I remember correctly – 160 Kc. At that price I was expecting an entire meal, but it turned out to be just an appetizer-sized soup one might expect to get for 35 Kc. I was still hungry so I ordered a sandwich, which appeared to be the type one would get out of a vending machine wrapped in cellophane and then stick in a microwave. In fact, I’m pretty sure it had been wrapped in cellophane, and had been stuck in a microwave; and it was only the fact that it hadn’t come directly out of a vending machine that made it somehow qualify as a restaurant meal. It, too, was, overpriced.
If the food had been any good that would have been one thing. If the food had been cheap or at least somewhat reasonably priced even considering inflated airport prices that until recently one took for granted, that would have been another. If the service had been particularly friendly, or even if the service had been particularly unfriendly in an old fashioned Czech pub-like way; if the food had been at least authentic, even if not very good, or if there had been a non-smoking section so that I could fully appreciate my overpriced, not very good meal. But, no such luck on any one account.
If this is the way tourists have in store for themselves on the way out of town, what about while they’re here? I’ve always enjoyed watching the faux- pig roasts in Old Town Square with the other tourists, and on Easter Sunday I finally broke down and ordered a chunk of the warmed over precooked “Prague ham.” I listened to the explanation of how it worked and it’s a little hard to follow (that’s the idea, of course, to leave the customer confused) but it seems to boil down to: it will cost at least 200Kc. for a piece, depending on the precise size. To say the “ham guys’ were not particularly ingratiating would be an understatement, but they have no incentive to be nice – they don’t ever expect to see you again. I specifically requested a small piece and was given a piece that cost 450 Kc.; it seems that by having the nerve to specifically request a small piece I’m being punished by being given an extra large portion. Of course, I could have just walked away. But the ham looked really tasty, and nobody else seemed to be making a scene – though there were a lot of tourists with sort of lost, puzzled expressions – so what the hell?
The fact is tourists-for the most part don’t mind being ripped off – so long as it’s done in moderation. They half expect it. But the tolerance and good will – even of people intent on having a good time, and not terribly discriminating – has its limits.
Ripped off or not, the truth to the matter is that you couldn’t keep tourists away from Prague if you beat them with a stick. Relatively speaking it’s not terribly expensive, and the nearly graffiti-free architecture of the city center is magnificent and people will come to see it no matter how they’re treated.
But the hucksterism of the tourist trade combines with the hucksterism of the prostitution trade to create a down-market spiral that infects and permeates Czech society in numerous ways. I used to admire Czechs’ libertarian attitude toward all things of a sexual nature and for the most part I still do. But more and more it seems a one time non-judgmental attitude is morphing into something opportunistic and jaded. Anyone who could possibly think that roaming bands of drunken whoring stags are good for the image of Prague has to be out of their minds. It’s when prostitution becomes metaphor for society as a whole that to paraphrase those calling out in desperation from Apollo 13, “Prague we have a problem.”
But the real problem is not with the kind of tourism that Prague attracts nor how the tourists are treated once they get here, it’s more serious than that; the real problem is the fact that the city center has been expropriated from the very people it was created to serve: the people who live here. The communists may have desecrated historical churches and chateaus lying outside the city, but it took laissez-faire capitalism to take away the heart and soul of the city center.
What’s happened to Prague’s City Center didn’t have to happen, it wasn’t inevitable; in fact, it would be difficult to imagine a city that has bungled its tourist trade worse. For those who have been to New York, can you imagine groups of 40 dawdling tourists being allowed to alter the flow of pedestrian traffic as is commonplace in Prague? Tourists are not handed over the best of New York carte blanche as they are in Prague; in fact, they’re given the worst of the city – Times Square – and for this they’re grateful and satisfied.
There is a belief among many Czechs that freedom means few if any rules, or regulations (or taxes), and, of course, there is wisdom in the expression “the power to tax is the power to destroy;” but the lesson of this truism is that taxing (and regulating) should be judicious, not that taxing and regulating should be nonexistent.
Tourism needs to be regulated. Lawyers are regulated, doctors are regulated, contractors are regulated, and business people are regulated – well, at least in most countries. As citizens we’re told how fast we can drive on the highway, when driving in the city we’re told to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, if remodeling a historic building we’re told what changes we can make and what changes we can’t make, if building a home or commercial enterprise we’re told what safety features it must contain, if eating out or buying groceries we at least hope that someone is making sure that the food will be safe and hygienic. For the most part we don’t think twice about these so-called restrictions on our liberty.
In what manner should tourism be regulated? I’m not sure exactly. A good starting point would be to see how other major tourist destinations go about regulating their tourist industries. One idea would be to limit the size of walking tours to groups of 5 or maybe 10. Some will say well that would never work; what if there were 5 adults and one infant does that violate the size limitation or not? But do we say we can’t have a speed limit of 70 km an hour for fear that those driving arguably quite safely at 71 will be unfairly treated?
What about restricting the hours when tours are allowed in the city center? Can you imagine the thrill of having a period of time- even if it were but for an hour or so a day, or every Wednesday, perhaps- when the city was returned to its rightful owners?
The irony of regulating tourism is that in the long run it would not harm the tourist trade, it would help it. A number of years ago I visited the Montverde National Park in Costa Rica, a rare and wonderful mountain cloud rain forest. Access to the park was severely restricted, and I had to wait a long time before I could take my turn. But once inside, I was only too happy to have had a quality experience that would not have been possible if the place were overrun with everyone who wanted to be there at the time. Of course, Prague is not a mountain rain forest, and there are no gates than can be closed to keep people out, nor would we want to do so if we could. But I go to New York because I’m interested in seeing how New Yorkers live, not because I want to stare at a bunch of other tourists, and I’m betting the same applies to many of those who come to Prague – whether for the first or tenth time. The city center should be made affordable and desirable for its citizens to work and live, with respectful tourism encouraged to show off a living vibrant city, not an ossified outdoor museum.
It should be pointed out that here are people in America who don’t believe in regulation any more than many Czechs. In America these people are called Republicans, and because in particular they didn’t believe in regulating business, the world is still paying the consequences of the 2008 American mortgage/economic meltdown-not a cyclical downturn mind you, but a man-made laissez-faire event.
Political choice does matter – as it turns out.
About the author:
David B. Brown is an American lawyer and writer in the process of finishing his Memoir of living and working in Central Europe – Prague, Budapest, and Riga –
in the 1990s. He periodically returns to Prague to teach at Anglo American University.
published: 3. 6. 2012