Crowded Prague promotes less-visited sites

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Before last month's historic floods, this central European urban gem was discovering that there could be too much of a good thing, at least in terms of the tourist crowds that typically swamp its central precincts each high season.

Overcrowding in Prague's center -- and the problems it engendered, such as petty crime -- had taken a bit of the sheen off the town for repeat visitors and locals alike.

But retailers and hoteliers were as full as ever this summer, thanks mainly to the first-timers who still poured in to ogle the wonders of Charles Bridge, the Municipal House and St. Vitus Cathedral.

A nearly empty Charles Bridge is a rare sight in Prague. Normally, the city's central precincts are swamped with tourists in summer. The problem was that's all the sites many of them ever visited, said Vaclav Novotny, director of Prague Information Service, the city's tourism board.

"Prague [was] definitely overcrowded on its main axis, from Old Town Square across Charles Bridge to the Royal Castle," said Novotny. "Visitors expect this city to be poetic and lyrical, but what do they find? Loads of other tourists."

By the numbers

Once a rarely visited Eastern Bloc outpost, the Czech capital saw visitor overnights quadruple in one decade -- from 2 million per year immediately following the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that ended Communist rule to about 8 million last year. U.S. travelers constituted some 420,000 of those visitors, a 5% increase from 2000.

Although there have been plenty of rooms for everyone -- Prague boasts 60,000 beds and five hotels were set to open just before flooding -- the city center, also known as "Prague 1," has been straining under the onslaught.

"I wouldn't say 8 million visitors is the limit of our tourism infrastructure," said Novotny. "It is more or less a question of the capacity of the city itself."

So this summer, Novotny began a drive to spur greater interest in the city's less-visited attractions, spreading tourists throughout the Prague area -- and the year.

"There are many other places of interest in the city," he said, citing attractions such as the Vysehrad National Cultural Monument in Prague 2. The hill is packed with fortifications, cemeteries, churches and other historical monuments.

Travel agents can do their part by steering clients to Vysehrad and other outlying sights, said Novotny, such as the Veletrzni Palac Museum of Modern Art, set in a part of the Holesovice quarter (Prague 8) that escaped flood damage.

Also of interest are Europe's largest collection of airplanes at the Kbely Aviation Museum in Prague 19; the National Technical Museum in Letna Park (Prague 7); and the 16th century Hvezda Palace, a unique star-shaped structure in Prague 8.

Unfortunately, some attractions Novotny had intended to promote, such as Zbraslav castle in Prague 5 -- home to a National Gallery collection -- and the baroque Troja Chateau in Prague 7, were flooded and are now closed to visitors.

Even closer in, Prague boasts a wealth of under-visited sites, such as the observation tower, botanical garden and mirror maze atop Petrin Hill.

In fact, the three square miles of Prague's historic core contain some 1,700 structures of note -- but most go unnoticed by tourists, said Novotny. "We're organizing to attract tourists to them, but, to tell the truth, it hasn't worked much."

Challenges

Novotny also is looking to attract visitors in the off season by heavily promoting the city's winter cultural activities -- such as the city's famed music festivals -- to retirees and students.

But he concedes that for the foreseeable future, managing summer crowds will remain the larger challenge.

Although the vast majority of tourists enjoy problem-free visits to the Czech capital, most (this reporter included) are treated by locals to frequent, disheartening lectures on pickpocket deterrence -- and an unfortunate few do fall prey to petty criminals.

"Obviously, this enormous amount of tourism generates criminal behavior, so we have some prostitution, pickpocketing, drugs -- anything you can imagine, although I wouldn't say the situation is worse than in other European cities," said Novotny.

To mitigate the problem, the largely monolingual police force is getting foreign-language training and a system of security cameras slowly is being installed around town. But both efforts meet with mixed reaction from residents.

"We're still a country where everyone older than 30 was obliged to know some Russian, but other languages were regarded with suspicion," said Novotny. "And we don't like the cameras much -- they're too reminiscent of Big Brother."

For more information on Prague, call the Czech Tourist Authority in New York at (212) 288-0830 or visit www.czechcenter.com on line. Or contact the Prague Information Service direct at (011) 420-2 2171-4301 or at www.prague-info.cz.

What's open, what's not

NEW YORK -- According to the Czech Tourist Authority, the center of Prague has largely reopened to visitors, with only a few streets in the Old and Lesser Towns closed for repairs.

Attractions still open include the Prague State Opera; the Municipal House; the Prague Castle complex; the National Gallery; Tyn Cathedral in Old Town Square; the National Museum; the Antonin Dvorak Museum; Vysehrad; and Strahov Monastery.

Closed at press time were the Jewish Museum, to reopen by early October; the Bedrich Smetana Museum; the Museum of Applied Arts; the Prague Zoo; and Troja Chateau. In addition, much of Kampa Island, snuggled beneath Charles Bridge, was heavily damaged.

Among major hotels, the Four Seasons, Inter-Continental and Hilton are closed for repairs at least through the end of September. Subway service remains spotty, with tram lines picking up the slack. -- K.K.

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