Making Prague a friendly tourist destination


James Fitzpatrick is a classic business tourist, a British music producer who works with orchestras at a Barrandov sound studio on Ve Smečkách street, just off Wenceslas Square. He lives in the United Kingdom, but travels back and forth to Prague frequently.

What is Fitzpatrick’s top tourist complaint? Not the strong crown, which is biting into his business (for more than 15 years, he’s offered discount music services to U.S. movie producers and others). Not the pickpockets that we’ve all seen working the trams and the subways. Not even the city’s legendary bad food and surly service.No, his No. 1 complaint is how tawdry Ve Smečkách has gotten, with its sex touts harassing every male that walks down the street. His home-away-from-home hotel, the K+K Fenix, where people at the front desk know him by name, sometimes feels like it’s under siege by the sex industry outside, he says with a note of sadness.“I’m certainly not a prude, but it is very bad for many of my clients,” Fitzpatrick confides.To judge strictly by the numbers, Prague has come into its own as a tourist destination. It’s now the sixth most-visited city in Europe, according to the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents of the Czech Republic, and the12th most popular city in the world, according to the Web site TripAdvisor.But, in many respects, Prague is still living in the dark ages. All too often, tourists are regarded as easy marks by unscrupulous cabbies and restaurants that make a practice of nicking people unfamiliar with Czech money for a few extra crowns, or adding items to their bill. Ve Smečkách has become a gauntlet, and dealing with any official agency, in particular the police, remains a nightmare for tourists.However, many of these problems could be mitigated with some simple and inexpensive measures. Herewith, our top 10 suggestions for improving the tourist experience:10. Add some restrictions to the sex industry trade. Why do touts continue to work the streets around Wenceslas Square? Men who want to visit the strip clubs have no problems finding them.9. Set up a tourism oversight committee to monitor truth in advertising, especially at restaurants. Nothing sours a tourist’s experience faster than the feeling like he or she is getting ripped off in restaurants. At the very least, “cover” charges should be prominently displayed on menus, so diners know about them in advance.8. Add more travel information signs in a variety of languages. City officials are already thinking about this one. The large, backlit street maps are also a helpful amenity.7. Make a more prestigious tourism school. What do Croatia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have that the Czech Republic doesn’t? Well-known schools that teach students the business of tourism, especially how to keep customers happy. 6. Offer hotel deals. Everyone loves a deal, and hotel offers would be a great way to get visitors to recommend the Czech Republic to friends.5. Highlight sites in Bohemia and Moravia. Folks in the countryside are invariably friendlier than their urban counterparts.4. Monitor currency exchange offices. If there’s one thing we have seen more times than we can count, it is visitors having problems changing money — and complaining afterward that they’ve been ripped off. 3. Mystery shoppers. Most retailers in the Western world didn’t learn good customer service automatically, it had to be taught. Sending out mystery shoppers is a good way to find out where the problems are. 2. Send taxi drivers to “charm school.” If learning how to be friendly to customers is good enough for cabbies in Athens, Edinburgh and New York, it should be good enough for cabbies here. The “Fair Taxi” stands were a step in the right direction; now it’s time to deal with surly, thieving drivers.1. Smile. This needs no explanation, and it’s free.