After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 thousands of Western tourists flocked to Prague for their first-ever visit to the Czech capital. This intense interest lasted for several years and together with the city's architectural treasures it ensured a steady stream of tourists. But now - more than sixteen years later - the Prague tourist authorities have a new goal: to keep tourists coming back for more.
The city that travel agencies dubbed the "Paris of the east" shortly after the fall of communism is now seeking to live up to its name. Prague's beautiful architecture is not enough to make tourists return over and over again. The focus now is on the city's rich cultural life and the quality of services offered which would make people chose Prague over other European capitals for a short break. Despite its problems with overcharging taxi drivers and pick-pockets, Prague remains one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Europe. In the course of 2005 it attracted 4 million foreign visitors, putting it on the list of 6 most popular European tourist destinations. Vaclav Novotny of the Prague Information Bureau says Europeans have taken a liking to Prague.
"I'd say that 25 percent of the tourists are British, 15 percent are Germans, 9 percent are Italians and 8 percent are Americans. They mostly come for a short break and spend and average three and a half days simply having fun here."
A third of all tourists to Prague come back. Low-cost airlines have made a few nights on the town easily affordable. Some people come for a weekend of concerts others focus on the beer and beautiful girls. As Vaclav Novotny says "not all visitors to Prague are opera fans" - and it is important to provide around the clock service. "Prague is quite an open city, quite a liberal city, with no regulations for opening hours for example. City tourism nowadays is what we call "city breaks". People go somewhere for a long weekend - say three and a half days. And in a lot of cities opening hours are strictly regulated, which means that on Sunday everything is closed, half of Saturday everything is closed, after eight pm everything is closed. In Prague this phenomenon doesn't exist. People can spend their time much more actively. They gain more for their money."
"The Internet is definitely the most effective. About 80 percent of tourists say they were attracted by what they saw of Prague on the Internet. And the second most effective way is by word of mouth. People who visit Prague tell their friends and relatives what a good time they had -these people are our best ambassadors. And I am happy to say that 98 percent of visitors leave Prague satisfied."
Overseas tourists are harder to attract. The plane fare is higher and they usually aim to visit several European cities in succession. So are European cities rivals in the cut-throat competition for overseas visitors?
"Well, definitely we are competitors. I have good colleagues and good friends in Vienna, but we admit to ourselves that we are competitors. We compete with Vienna, we compete with Budapest, we compete with Berlin...that's how it is. On the other hand, we cooperate as well. For instance we do joint presentations on the American market. We speak of central Europe as a place that offers a great deal, many interesting cities to be seen - and of course we all hope that we will be THE city that people will chose to go to."
Some time ago there was talk of attracting more affluent visitors to the Czech capital. Novotny says that looking down on backpackers or stag parties is not something he approves of.
"We should feel lucky that so many tourists chose to come here instead of looking down on some of them and saying we like these and we dislike the others. They are our clients - all of them. And we love them and we want them to come back, over and over again."
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