The National Heritage Institute which is responsible for the protection and preservation of the country’s historical monuments has over 100 palaces, castles and manor houses in its care. Over the past 20 years it has worked hard to restore many of those long-neglected buildings to their former glory and today they represent the best part of the country’s national heritage. Regrettably, many of those outside Prague remain undiscovered by foreign tourists. Tomáš Brabec of the National Heritage Institute says this is something that the institute is trying hard to change.
“Our problem is that we are losing foreign tourists. Altogether our sites get approximately 4,400 000 visitors in the course of a year and only about 10 percent of them are foreign tourists, mainly from German speaking countries then English speaking countries (which does not mean that those people are necessarily British or American) and then we have many visitors from France, Italy, Spain and Latin America. But the thing is, that although we get foreign visitors from a wide variety of countries, they still represent only ten percent of the overall number. “
So what is the problem? Why aren’t more foreign tourists coming to your sites?
“There were two crises – one came soon after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York which was a global issue and now we are feeling the effects of the financial crisis. Both are projected into the situation in tourism. Those are factors coming from outside and we can only try to deal with the consequences, but we cannot influence the cause. We are now cooperating very closely with the national agency Czech Tourism which after some years of promoting the Czech Republic as a destination of culinary experiences and other attractions has come back to the philosophy that the Czech Republic is mainly a country of castles and palaces and we absolutely agree with them on that count and are trying hard to support that philosophy and marketing strategy in terms of explaining to visitors that the most precious part of the national heritage of this country are those castles and palaces. So we very much hope that in the long-term perspective this will bring more visitors – possibly people who did not have enough information - to come to see out castles, manor houses etc.”
“We certainly do not feel that enough is being done which is why we are now closely cooperating with Czech Tourism which we think is the most efficient way to help promote this country as a country with an architectural heritage of incredible value, which makes the Czech Republic unique and special. Speaking just for the 104 sites under our maintenance – 90 of them are open to the public – I can say that those are among the best that you can find in Europe. The reasons are quite clear. Although the historical palaces and buildings are not always beautifully preserved in terms of the architecture most of them are fully furnished with the original inventory which is unique in Europe on such a scale. And that is what we are trying to emphasize in cooperation with Czech Tourism. We are also strengthening relations with the British Heritage Foundation in order to gain experience and know-how from a country which has a much longer tradition in managing such a huge number of historical buildings.”
“From that point of view, I think that with our sites we can satisfy almost everybody. Because the castles and the palaces, the chateaux and the manor houses –and even some technical monuments that we take care of – they represent everything – architecture, fine art, sculpture, garden architecture, folk architecture, industrial architecture…there is something for almost everyone. We now have a new website (www.npu.cz)where each of our sites is covered in different language versions which is a way of bringing people directly to these sites and trying to show them the character of each place. I really think that we can satisfy anyone with an elementary cultural interest.”
What are some of the gems that you would recommend?
“Of course the most popular and best-known is Karlštejn Castle, Český Krumlov, Konopiště, Hluboká, the Moravian UNESCO complex, Lednice. You know castles can offer authenticity and noble feelings and of course people travel primarily to experience something. Our visitors do not necessarily come to learn, they come predominantly for the experience, to have an enjoyable time, to feel good. And that is why we are targeting everybody, we are not distinguishing between Czech and foreign visitors. We are trying to enrich the basic services from tour guides to additional activities –theatre performances, music performances, a guided tour by the manager of the place who can definitely present the place with much deeper knowledge than even the most professional tour guide. Our season is divided into months where each has a certain topic and visitors can look for the things they are interested in. We have months when we cater to children’s interests or the private life of the aristocracy which is for people who would like to gain a deeper insight into life in these castles at a time when they were inhabited. So this is how we try to bring our castles closer to visitors so to speak, or to present them with a “human face”.”
“That exists and it is being done wherever possible. Altogether we have more than 2,000 cultural events in the course of one year, so we are actually one of the biggest organizers of cultural events in the country – we do music events, theatre performances, specialized workshops. “
What is your target goal, what would you like to see come about say in the next 3 or 5 years?
“Oh….we would like to be able to fulfill the expectations of all the different age groups. We would like to make our sites interesting not only to people who are interested in history, but to make them attractive and accessible to whole families, and of course to people with different kinds of disabilities which is another problem that we have, because it is not easy to make accessible a place built at a time when the main emphasis was on its defensive function to someone who is in a wheelchair. But it is a challenge and that is where we would like to go in the future. Simply to serve as many potentially interested people as we can.”