overtourism prague

Can Prague Fix its Overtourism? Sustainable Travel Methods Offers Hope

Sustainable tourism is key to Prague’s future as a cultural capital in Europe. Its rich history and significance spans across dynasties, wars, and religious riffs for over 1,000 years. Unfortunately, the current models are leading to overtourism in Prague. Tourist traps tend to sweep aside important context in favor of cheap tricks for maximizing foot traffic. 

Jennifer Parker, a Prague expat, offered to speak with us about sustainable tourism efforts across Europe. Her BA is in Anthropological Archaeology from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She has an MS focused on sustainable cultural heritage tourism development and management from the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University (SDSU). Her career was as a California State Parks archaeologist. As an expat of Prague for five years, she uses it as her homebase while she travels on her Vespa. One of her goals is to visit all the UNESCO World Heritage sites. For her, progress for Prague’s tourism industry includes, “adopting a sustainable cultural heritage tourism plan based on the UNESCO World Heritage Sustainable Tourism Toolkit which is a series of guides for World Heritage Site managers and other key stakeholders. ”

The Shift to Overtourism

Tourism is not inherently wrong; it provides jobs, educates visitors, and encourages international cooperation. Prague City Tourism is Prague’s official tourism marketing organization. Their 2019 annual report admits the overcrowding of Old Town. The city saw a record-breaking 8 million overnight visitors in 2019. For reference, Prague’s population is around 1.3 million.

“The long-term goal of Prague City marketing is not to achieve annual increases in arrivals. It is the development of the kind of tourism that brings the city all economic, cultural and social benefits but does not jeopardize the quality of life of residents and is sustainable in the long term… [through] support for products and services focused on cultural, experiential and luxury tourism.”

Prague City Tourism 2019 annual report

Overtourism occurs when a popular site has more tourists than it’s infrastructure or economy can manage. Typical indicators are too much trash and heavy foot traffic. Visual clutter, like obnoxious street advertisements and buskers, cheapen the cultural heritage and integrity of the host city. Harmful effects to the environment and historical structures are top concerns for cultural preservationists.

Locals opinions on tourism are becoming more hostile as their homes are overrun with constant streams of visitors.

If tourists visit a city and they do not have historical context to understand their surroundings, they miss out on rich details. Parker had an example of this happening in Prague: “At one time or another, we have all followed the royal route down Celetná and Karlova and seen the myriad of shops attempting to entice the passers by to spend their hard-earned dollar on souvenirs of every kind. Have you ever wondered why there are so many stores hawking marionettes? No, it isn’t because of the black light puppet shows. In 2016, the artistry of telling stories through puppetry in the Czech Republic and Slovakia was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list… By creating hands-on opportunities, like maybe a workshop in storytelling by puppetry, tourists will remember their experiences in a meaningful way rather than wondering why there are so many marionettes for sale.” 

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Prague is far from alone. Cities all over Europe are experiencing similar problems with allowing their cultural heritage to be trampled.

Dubrovnik’s Plight

In 2017, UNESCO warned the Dubrovnik city council of the possibility of losing its World Heritage Site recognition. UNESCO cited overtourism as its main concern, and urged the city to consider limiting daily visitors in the city center to 8,000.

Dubrovnik had a major problem with cruise ship traffic. Guests arrived onshore after breakfast and were back on the ship by dinner. Their presence crowded city streets, but they were not spending the amount of money a visitor staying the night and eating three meals would spend. Mato Franković, Dubrovnik’s mayor, responded to UNESCO’s warning. He limited the number of daily visitors allowed around fragile historical sites. Only two cruise ships are allowed to dock per day, and only 5,000 tourists are allowed in the city center at a time: 3,000 lower than the UNESCO recommendation. 

Dubrovnik officials and UNESCO worked together to protect fragile cultural heritage sites from crowds.

Trouble in Venice

Italy’s gem, Venice, has gotten plenty of media coverage lately over the ecological benefits the city’s canals are experiencing as a result of the travel bans. Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, made decisive moves with UNESCO to save Venice’s cultural heritage. Parker informed us, “Burgnaro has asked UNESCO to place Venice on the endangered list as a tool to fight the entry of cruise ships that are causing detrimental damage to the city.” Cities are slowly taking back control of their historical landmarks.

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Sustainable Tourism Methods

Parker’s expertise in the area of sustainable tourism enhances her experiences as she travels the globe on her Vespas.

“Case studies have shown that when cultural heritage programs are adopted by cities, they tend to attract a higher-yield of tourists – those who are older, better educated, and willing to spend more money on their holidays. Additionally, they enjoy participating in more activities and stay on an average of 2-3 days longer than the average tourist, thus increasing and diversifying the local economy.” 

Jennifer Parker, MS in Hospitality and Tourism Management

One answer to Prague’s overtourism is to implement incentives that encourage a more diverse tourism scene. Compared to Berlin and Budapest, Prague saw far less action during the World Wars. As a result, Prague has a wealth of well-preserved historical landmarks. According to Parker’s research, “the average visitor will remember 10% of what they hear, 30% of what they read, 50% of what they see and 90% of what they do.” City officials could use tax incentives to encourage workshops, living history, and other forms of sustainable tourism. Focusing on culture and history are crucial to improving Prague’s image, and sustainable tourism is the model of the future

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