Does a country need to advertise itself to attract tourists or is it a task for private tourist industry to attract visitors? Who are Prague's main competitors? And what is the Czech Republic doing to promote itself in a situation when revenues from tourism plunged so deep in 2002 as to cut one percent off GDP growth? In this week's edition, we talk to a representative of the Czech Tourist Authority in London about how the Czech Republic tries to present itself to tourists abroad and what kind of visitors it would like to attract.
After 1989, the Czech Republic has gradually become a popular tourist destination with revenues from tourism contributing significantly to the national product. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of foreign tourist visiting the country tripled and incomes from tourism increased seven times. However, in August 2002, large parts of the country were hit by devastating floods which did not make any principal impact on the output of basic production industries, but heavily affected arrivals of foreign tourists and tourism receipts. According to analysts, the drop in tourism revenues cut one percent off GDP growth.
Tourism is seen as the most dynamically developing industry worldwide with about every tenth economically active person working there. Czech governments after the fall of communism made certain effort to promote the Czech Republic as a tourist destination, including the establishment of the Czech Tourist Authority. However, a complex tourism policy did not exist until the second half of the decade.
Iveta Schoppova is the director of the Czech Tourist Authority for the UK and Ireland. My colleague Ian Willoughby talked to her in a café under her office on London's Regent Street.
"The main aim of the Czech Tourist Authority is to promote the Czech Republic abroad. We are working at three levels: we work with the press - we subsidise the PR agency of the Czech Republic, we work with tour-operators - the professionals, and obviously, we would like to address the general public."
How are you funded?
"We are part of the Ministry for Regional Development, so we are funded purely by the government."
Can you afford big advertising campaigns? I have heard for example that Hungary had a big advertising campaign here 'Come to Hungary'. Can you afford anything like that?
"Not at the moment. It is actually a very frequent question from British journalists. But the only thing I can say is that at the moment, we cannot afford it. I would like to point out that it is a really very strong point from Hungary, from the Hungarian Tourist Board, to have a budget for a big advertising campaign. From my experience, Budapest is a really strong competitor to Prague and it is because they have a very aggressive approach to the market."
Is it possible that Prague is already so well-known that you don't need to advertise too much?
"No, it is completely wrong. Even though Prague is very well known, we need to promote it."
What kind of image are you trying to create of the Czech Republic?
"We would like to promote it as a very diverse country. It has got a lot to offer - not only Prague as a capital city but as a city with rich cultural heritage. We are promoting castles and chateaux, we are promoting spa resorts. And I would like to concentrate a little more on conventions, congresses and incentive travel."
Is congress tourism a growing business in the Czech Republic?
"It is not, I am afraid. We have to promote it a little more."
So, the World Bank/IMF session and the NATO summit haven't helped in that respect?
"It was a platform. We expect that it will increase a little bit, but as I said, it was just a platform and we need to push it and promote it."
Have you done research about how the British people perceive the Czech Republic both in the positive way and possible in the negative way?
"Since 1989, when we opened the border, we have had something like three periods - in the first few years, it was a little exotic country so to say, everybody wanted to go there and it was a boom for the Czech Republic. Then we started to be a little more well-known. And now, we need to be a little more aggressive."
What are the main attraction for the British people?
"The clientele is really very broad. Obviously, we would like to promote Prague as a city of culture. British people really love to go for opera, to enjoy cultural events, admire architecture etc. Another segment are young people who go for these - now unpopular - stag parties. It is another let's say magnet for young people."
What do you think about these stag parties? I know there is one website called praguepissup.com, it is quite ugly. What do you think of that kind of tourism?
"It is very unpopular for the Czech side. We have had a lot of complaints from hotel and restaurant owners. The situation is somewhat similar to that in Dublin a few years ago. Obviously, we would like to avoid creating this image of the Czech Republic, that it is only cheap beer that you can find there."
Who is your ideal visitor? Have you got one?
"I would like to address more the sophisticated clientele, older people who would like to know more about architecture, culture etc."
Is it hard for you to persuade the British people that there is more to the Czech Republic than just Prague?
"It is quite difficult, I would say. But as I said, we need a big campaign to persuade them and we are targeting the spa resorts which started to be really popular now, as well as castles and chateaux I mentioned before."
Is a visit to a spa seen as a kind of luxury holiday?
"It's reasonably priced if you compare the Czech Republic to spas in Italy or elsewhere. It is good value for money."
Has the boom in cheap flights benefited tourism from this country to the Czech Republic?
"Yes, definitely. We've got four airlines now that go to the Czech Republic - Czech Airlines, British Airways, BMI Baby, and Easy Jet. Services are very frequent and spread around the whole country so people from regions can get to the Czech Republic much more easily."