Industry adapts as central Europe dries off

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NEW YORK -- With floods that caused some $21.5 billion in damage in central Europe finally receding, travel agents and tour operators to the Czech Republic began to sound the all-clear, but those selling Dresden and other towns in a still-swamped eastern Germany remained wary but hopeful.

Tampa, Fla., agency Exeter International -- which, at the height of the flooding, had sent a tour group bound for the Four Seasons in Prague to St. Petersburg, Russia, instead -- is sending clients to the Czech capital again, booking them into hotels in drier areas near Wenceslas Square and Prague Castle.

"By and large, it appears people can still visit the attractions they'd planned on seeing before [the floods]," said manager Joe Sandillo, who said many Prague hotels remain booked solid from early- to mid-September.

Moreover, the Czech Tourist Authority said "most areas are functioning normally and there is no danger to visitors," which was confirmed by Evza Bilkova, founder of Prague ground operator Happy Journey, who personally inspected several city hotels and neighborhoods.

"[In] my opinion ... clients staying in Prague will not have problems," she said.

Although the Inter-Continental Praha, Ibis Karlin and Hilton Prague joined the Four Seasons in closing for repairs to electrical systems, properties such as the Radisson SAS, Palace, Marriott and the Ambassador suffered no damage.

However, subway service remains limited in the city center and repairs across the city could cost millions, if not billions.

Elsewhere in the Czech Republic, the Renaissance town of Cesky Krumlov completed its cleanup and officials "relaunched" its tourism season in an Aug. 19 ceremony; to the west, spa favorites Marianske Lazne and Karlovy Vary remained high and dry throughout the floods.

The picture was improving in eastern Germany, as well.

While the German National Tourist Office (GNTO) in New York described baroque Dresden -which had borne the brunt of an Elbe River rising 30 feet higher than usual -- as "returning to normal," serious damage was done to landmarks such as the Zwinger Palace Museum and the Semperoper opera house, which reportedly is refunding 150,000 tickets for its now-delayed fall performances.

Still, many Dresden museums -- including the Albertinum, which houses the imperial crown jewels -- were reopening, as were most major hotels, a GNTO spokesman said.

Meanwhile, dikes and sandbags appeared to have kept the Elbe from overrunning Unesco-protected sites in the cities of Dessau, Wittenberg and Magdeburg, said Christine Lambrecht, marketing director for the Dessau Tourist Office.

River cruise operator Peter Deilmann Cruises canceled its Aug. 24 sailing from Dresden -- the company's second postponement in two weeks on Elbe routes -- and was reserving judgment on the next departure, set for Aug. 31.

Other operators and agents varied in their responses. Exeter International, for example, rebooked FIT clients due to arrive in Dresden in early September on alternate Berlin and Poland itineraries.

Similarly, Elbe river operator Unique World Cruises is routing a group of clients who were to sail from Prague to Dresden and Meissen on Aug. 31 on a Krakow-Warsaw-Berlin land itinerary instead.

"We expect that our Elbe cruises will sail as of Sept. 7," said Misha Radulovic, president of the Manhasset, N.Y.-based company. "But in the meantime, our clients love [the alternate program]."

For its part, operator Smolka Tours in Tinton Falls, N.J., hopes a group of clients will be able to visit Dresden in late September.

"We're waiting to see how the cleanup goes," a spokeswoman said. "We would like to support the affected areas when they need it most, much as New York needed help after Sept. 11."

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