Prague is one of Europe’s top tourist destinations, with an annual five million visitors. For some of them, however, the combination of the city’s night life and cheap alcohol is a far bigger attraction than its historical heritage. In parts of the city centre, severe problems with noisy and drunk tourists have prompted the authorities to consider imposing a 10 PM closing time deadline on some of the notorious watering holes, a move which has earned them accusations of reviving communist-era rules.
On one warm night last summer, a resident of Dlouhá Street in Prague’s Old Town captured on camera the scenes that have long plagued the neighbourhood. Crowds of young people stand outside bars and clubs, drinking, singing, yelling and sometimes fighting into the early hours, night after night.
Around 1,500 bars, restaurants, clubs and similar establishments are located in the district of Prague 1 which includes the city’s major tourist sites of Old Town and Malá Strana. But there are also 30,000 residents living in the historic city, and some of them have had enough. Gabriela Setničková and her family live on Dlouhá Street, just a few blocks from Old Town Square. After countless sleepless nights, she started a petition calling on the authorities to act.
“We’ve been living here for several years, and my husband has lived here all his life. But over the last two years, the noise levels have gotten really bad, and you can’t sleep with your windows open or shut.
“There are crowds of people every night and the noise is bad. Not to mention what happens to the cars: every morning, wing mirrors are broken off, there is vomit on them, broken bottles, and things like that. So we wanted to approach the town hall; we launched a petition and the signatures keep coming.”
It’s not the noise coming from the bars which deprives Ms Světničková and other residents in the area of sleep. The noise comes from people who cannot get into the bars, and stand in the streets for hours on end.
A recent phenomenon of pub crawls has made things worse. Large groups of several hundred people move from one bar to another each night. As all of them can never fit inside, they hang outside and make themselves heard.
“We go to bed at around midnight and the noise is worst around 2 or 3 AM. That’s when it starts. And there is also a problem with the taxis who take the drunks away. There are columns of taxis moving on the cobblestones, which is very noisy, too. In the summer, taxi drivers have their windows down and play loud music, they beep at each other, and so on. The noise is really bad.”
Prague’s noise ordinance prohibits loud sounds between 10 PM and 6 AM. But in central Prague, these prohibitions seem impossible to enforce. Gabriela Světničková describes what happens when she or her desperate neighbours call the police.
“In the summer, we call them several times every night. Sometimes they come in 15 minutes, sometimes in 45 minutes. There are very few police officers here, and you don’t see them patrolling the area at all. They just arrive to address a particular problem. But when you have a drunk sitting on the pavement and singing, he might not be there by the time the police arrive.”
Around 400 local residents have now signed the petition, started by Gabriela Světničková, which calls on the town hall of Prague to force bar owners to control what’s happening outside their venues. And after months of inactivity, the town hall has finally responded.
Prague 1 councillor Ivan Solil, who is in charge of the town’s hall security and crime prevention department, has come up with a controversial proposal to restrict the opening hours of some of the bars whose visitors are out of control.
“It’s not just that someone has a good business idea and opens a good bar. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good bars, of the American type. That’s their business and they are successful. At the same time, however, people from elsewhere in Prague, the country or the world have the right to entertain themselves and it’s good that we can offer them that. But the residents have their rights too, which is exactly what the Constitutional Court says.”
Councillor Solil says the municipality has adopted several strategies to tackle the issue. They are planning to install surveillance systems in the worst affected areas that would automatically notify the closest police patrol. Bars with noisy clients will not be allowed to put up outside seating areas, and will be subject to frequent inspections.
“This is an extreme measure that could be applied if all other measures we have come up with don’t work. But we are saying at the same time that the issue of public disorder should primarily be addressed by the police and the municipal police.”
Unlike national police, Prague municipal police is a security force run by the city whose primary task is maintaining public order. In the district of Prague 1, between 30 and 40 officers are deployed each night, a number considered painfully low by the residents. But spokeswoman for the force, Irena Seifertová says there is not much more the police can do.
“We are naturally aware of the problem. The centre of the city is, due to large concentrations of people and bars, very specific and does generate a lot of noise. We are doing all we can but we really can’t put officers in every street and outside every bar that causes these problems. Public order is a priority for us but we also have other issues to address.”
Mr Solil’s proposal provoked some strong reactions. Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček said it appeared as if the town hall was trying to bring back communist times when most pubs across the country were mandated to close at 10. The bar owners approached by Radio Prague declined to comment on the issue. But some of them said off record that if the measure is implemented, they would have to close down.
The economic impact of the restriction is difficult to establish. An estimated 10 percent of the five million visitors are those who come mainly for the cheap alcohol, and these would probably find other places to go, says Anastasia Taran of Mag Consulting, a Prague-based travel consulting firm.
“Restricting bars’ opening hours in central Prague would eliminate these bars. I think their guests would move to bars and clubs in the immediate neighbourhood, for instance in Prague 2 and 5. But these places are not able to hold as many tourists.
“As a result, tourists would choose another EU capital as a destination or they would significantly shorten their stays in Prague. Another impact would be of course a decline of sales in bars and restaurants in the centre of the city where between 65 and 80 percent of guests are tourists.”
Prague 1 Councilman Ivan Solil, meanwhile, admits that imposing a 10 PM closing time on some bars is a long way away. The respective ordinance would have to be issued by Prague City Hall which is rather sceptical about it. But Mr Solil says that the very prospect of having to close so early has prompted some of the bar owners to cooperate.
“I’ve already had some responses. It has not been long since we announced that we had this potential alternative. But some entrepreneurs realize the situation is difficult even for them. Some of the establishments might start losing important segments of their clients; if things get worse, only those who are in search of alcohol will keep coming there but the regular customers will stop going there.”
In her flat in Dlouhá Street, meanwhile, Gabriela Světničková says she hopes the debate sparked by her petition will eventually lead to curbing the noise outside her windows.