The Czech Republic is becoming more popular with foreign tourists. The latest figures show that in the first three months of this year, almost 1.3 million tourists visited the country which represents a 13-percent increase compared to the same period last year. German tourists continue to top the list of foreign visitors, followed by Russians who are the fastest growing group. RP discussed the development with Rostislav Vondruška, the head of the state agency CzechTourism.
“I am of course very pleased with the numbers. But it’s only the first quarter of the year, and it also follows the trend we can see all over the world which shows that people have confidence to travel and aren’t yet taking into account the consequences of the financial and economic crisis.”
So why do you think the Czech Republic is becoming more attractive? Is it the security situation?
“That’s one of many reasons, an important and significant one. Another is a very good price/value ratio. You can book a four-, five-star hotel with excellent services at very competitive prices now.”
Well, some analysts say the ratio is inclined toward lower prices rather than higher quality. Do you think that the quality of services is en par with that in Western Europe for example?
“It goes hand in hand. You can dump prices but if you have very low quality, no one will buy it. So it’s not price only. You need a certain level of quality, and I would say that it’s comparable to any country in the world, not just Western Europe.”
When it comes to the countries of origin, most visitors continue to come from Germany but the fastest growing group is that of Russian tourists. Why do you think Russians like to come here?
“As far as Russia is concerned: there are still issues with the visa policy. But the situation recently improved a lot and the numbers just show that. The Russians love to come here, not just to the spas but they like shopping and other opportunities, like those for active holidays.”
Have you discussed the issue with the Foreign Ministry in order to ease the conditions of issuing tourist visas for Russian citizens?
“We talk frequently but it’s not about easing the conditions in Russia because that has already happened. Now we see some challenges for example in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.”
What other countries do you primarily focus on? Where would you like to see the numbers of tourists increase?
“Very desirable tourists definitely come from Scandinavia but we are also looking at more traditional markets such as Spain and Italy which have been hit by the economy but the numbers are positive and we are also trying to find new regional themes for these traditionally Catholic countries.”
“Yes, we slowly but surely see people finding new destinations besides Prague and Český Krumlov, as you said. That is reflected not only in leisure tourism but also in what we call MICE, which is congress and events tourism. We are closely cooperating with the 13 regional tourist boards on this. But it’s a long process and you cannot see the results from year to year.”
When you look at the quality of services we mentioned earlier, and compare Prague to the regions in this respect, is the gap there still very wide?
“Wherever there is infrastructure, the gap is not very big – if there is the infrastructure. Where there is not, the gap of course cannot be bridged easily. Either there is a five-star hotel, or there is not. There is nothing in between.”
Are investors in tourism interested in projects outside the capital?
“You see, investments into leisure infrastructure have slowed down all over the world, and I think it will take some time before it picks up again.”
“There are in fact two things: cultural heritage has been highlighted in relation with the 20th anniversary of Czech UNESCO sites. We are the country with the highest density of UNESCO-listed monuments per size in the world, so it’s a good opportunity to show that we are a cultural and historic destination.
“The other thing is part of a project introducing the country as a place full of stories that happened centuries ago or only recently. We want to show famous people who had some link to either Prague or the rest of the country, and we want to motivate people to come and live their own story, too.”
Are you at all concerned that some of these stories might be difficult to explain, given the complicated historic context – I’m referring to the fact that the country once had a large German minority whose expulsion continues to be a sensitive issue.
“That is a big challenge but we are working on a team of experts, and we want relate these famous people to the markets where they know very well about them. We will not try to play Mozart in Russia, for instance, but we will find the right historic person.”
Last year, you presented the Czech Republic as an ideal romantic destination. Was that a success? Did you see many foreign couples getting married in Czech castles?
“It probably did not have an impact in hundreds of thousands but it brought a good portion of business to our historical sites, the castles and manors. It was a typical example of how to bring more business to the regions because most of them are outside Prague.”
When you served as the regional development minister two years ago, you spoke about the need of new legislation that would re-define the competences of the various bodies involved in tourism. The legislation has not been passed to date – where do you see the problem?
“Well, preparations for the Tourism Act have started but the problem was that there were too many involved in the process. The ministry wanted to have all the big players involved so that once it’s passed, it would not need any changes for some time.
“As far as I know, the bill is now being put together and most of the objections have been cleared – with the exception of those coming from the Finance Ministry. But it will probably remain so.”
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