Cities across the continent want to mold visits into shapes less onerous for residents, and perhaps more lucrative for business.
Optimally, a virtuous circle can be created where loud partiers are supplanted by museum-goers with more money to spend—or so the thinking goes. Call it curated tourism.
“We met with representatives from Amsterdam, Barcelona and Florence during the pandemic, and all of us were thinking the same thing,” said Hana Třeštíková, Prague’s councilor of tourism. “Before Covid, over-tourism had become almost unbearable, and Covid gave a pause to try and make some changes in what our cities represent, how we promote ourselves and how we must focus on quality of visits—not quantity.”
Not so long ago, these cities marketed themselves to everyone. But Amsterdam’s widely available cannabis and legal prostitution, Barcelona’s urban beaches and Prague’s famous beer halls increasingly attracted tourists who brought what Geerte Udo, director of amsterdam&partners, diplomatically called “negative effects.”
In recent years, Prague’s tourist problem started to resemble Amsterdam’s, Třeštíková said. The Czech capital was getting 8 million visitors a year, almost doubling between 2012 and 2019. And like Amsterdam, most headed to the same neighborhoods, she said. In Prague’s case, they clog the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge.
“The city center is not a residential locality anymore, Třeštíková said. “There are not many apartments, and those are largely occupied by expats or converted to hotels and short-term rentals. We need to focus on what residents need and show a city that’s not a film set but alive with people from Prague.”
But reshaping a city’s tourist trade is harder than just changing marketing firms. Třeštíková said the biggest factors behind “low-quality” visits aren’t in the city’s control. The cost of tickets on budget airlines, the number of Airbnb units and even the price of beer can only be changed at the national level, she said.
A spokesperson for the Czech Ministry of Regional Development acknowledged that taxes on alcohol and air travel are determined by Parliament, but noted Prague’s city council can submit legislative proposals. A bill from the city that would provide municipalities with more power to regulate short-term rentals is currently under consideration, he said.
Even before Covid, Prague officials hired an agency that sought to persuade tourists “to come for more than two nights.” During the short-lived summer 2020 reopening, the city introduced “Prague Unlocked,” a campaign aimed at a Czech audience, since foreign travelers were still rare. It was a success.
Usually, just 15% of Prague’s tourists are domestic (compared with 20% in Vienna and almost 50% in Paris). But in 2020, the number of Czech visitors rose by 16%, with many staying in three- and four-star hotels, Třeštíková said.