Prague floods leave trade scrambling

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NEW YORK -- As floods inundated the Czech Republic and neighboring countries in central Europe last week, many U.S. agents selling the region applied three "r's": re-book, reaccommodate and reserve judgment.

Perennial tourist favorite Prague was hit particularly hard. Trips there were canceled, postponed or diverted, and clients shuffled between hotels, as agents nervously awaited damage assessments.

CSA Czech Airlines is offering full refunds or itinerary changes without penalty for departures from North America to Prague up to and including Aug. 24, according to a spokeswoman for the carrier.

Among the city-center hotels closed for repairs are the Inter-Continental Praha, the Hilton Prague, and the Four Seasons, which sits astride the swollen Vltava River, just steps from the famed Charles Bridge.

According to reports, some 10% of the city was flooded and damage figures were in the billions of dollars.

In response, Weber Travel Agency in Brookfield, Ill., canceled all departures to Prague for the week but advised clients scheduled to leave later in the season to check back after the weekend.

"I'm telling them to hold off on making a decision," said Robert Schlade, travel consultant at Weber. "We have 14 people leaving in September for an Oktoberfest tour combining Prague with Munich and Salzburg, and we're still not sure what's going to happen with that."

Exeter International in Tampa, Fla., decided to send one group scheduled to depart for Prague last weekend to St. Petersburg, Russia, instead, said manager Joe Sandillo.

"It was a matter of convenience, although our clients could have stayed at a hotel in Prague's [higher] castle district, if they still wanted to go."

Sandillo added that he, too, will take a wait-and-see approach to bookings for the remainder of the month.

Meanwhile, Bernharda Fabrici, managing director of Tatra Travel Bureau in New York, spent most of her week on the phone and on line arranging alternative accommodations for clients booked into hotels in flooded districts.

She said, "It's bad because the hotels on the outskirts are now filling to capacity; in a few days, the situation could become very difficult."

So Fabrici is advising many clients still intent on traveling to Prague to consider putting off the trip.

"I don't think they would have a very good time," she said.

With both the Elbe and Danube rivers closed to ship traffic last week, river cruise operators hurried to modify programs. Uniworld, for example, bused guests between two cruise ships that had overlapping Danube river itineraries.

Peter Deilmann Cruises canceled the Aug. 17 departures of the Danube Princess and the Dresden, which was to sail an Elbe River itinerary.

For its part, the Czech Tourist Authority predicted normal travel to the area could resume by September.

U.S. director Katerina Pavlitova said the Vltava was returning to normal levels, and Prague's most prized structures had escaped major harm.

However, she advised agents to contact the authority at (212) 288-0830, or monitor the Web at www.czechcenter.com for updates.

While the threat to Prague receded, an Elbe River over 25 feet higher than normal continued to swamp historic eastern German cities such as Dresden, Dessau and Magdeburg.

The Zwinger Palace museum and the Semperoper opera house in baroque Dresden -- restored only in the last decade -- were damaged by the worst flooding since 1845.

Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.

Ex-pat report: Closures, but no tidal wave

Former Travel Weekly Europe editor Dinah Spritzer, who is the business editor at the Prague Post, kept a diary of the flood and didn't need waterproof ink to do it. The days of her life follow:

Tuesday. My parents call at 7 a.m. because they have heard on the BBC radio that Prague is to be hit by a tidal wave. I assure them all is well. My staff and I learn that floods, which have already submerged the towns of Cesky Krumlov, Pilsen and Cesky Budejovice, are to arrive here in the evening.

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla declares a "military regime" and suspends "all human rights" in an effort to force people to evacuate as needed. Foreigners are impressed at the Czech response to the emergency: "They are efficient beyond all expectations, and we feel very safe. Time for a beer. Or two. Heck, they're only 50 cents."

Wednesday. I take my usual tram to work. We learn that three districts far from the center are under water, and the bridges are closed, including the famous Charles Bridge. Attractions in the city center such as the Old Town, the Lesser Quarter and the Jewish Quarter are off limits. Major hotels close to the river have been evacuated, and the city's most famous restaurant, Kampa Park, is under water.

Thursday. I venture to Old Town, where all is dry and visitors are happy to see the Old Town Square, and many head for the riverbank to check out the swollen river as if it were just another tourist attraction.

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