Glad you’re not here: stag party capitals vow to ‘do tourism differently’

Shaun Walker in Budapest
Photograph: Omar Marques/Getty Images

For the first time in years, the few remaining local residents of Budapest’s party district can fall asleep without a nocturnal chorus of drunken stag groups outside their windows. The sweeping expanse of Kraków’s central square is no longer teeming with tour groups, and it is possible to traverse Prague’s Charles Bridge without elbowing through hordes of selfie-takers.

Coronavirus travel restrictions are proving tough to bear for the hundreds of thousands who work in the region’s hospitality industry, but are also giving the many beautiful cities of central Europe time and space to think about how to deal with their overtourism problems.

Budget flights and low prices have been a mixed blessing for these places, as a trickle of tourists turned to a flood in the decades since the Iron Curtain fell. “The residents have been complaining for a very long time that the city doesn’t belong to them any more,” said Barbora Hrubá of Prague City Tourism, a municipal body that works on the Czech capital’s tourism strategy.

Related: The fall of Prague: ‘Drunk tourists are acting like they’ve conquered our city’

With 9 million international visitors a year, Prague has become Europe’s fourth most visited city, after Paris, London and Rome. Tourists are not usually interested in seeing the rest of the country, or even much of the city. The average length of stay is just 2.4 days, and the majority of tourists crowd into the city’s old town, which over the years has pushed out much local life from the area.

“This is a great opportunity for us to rebuild and restart tourism in the city differently. We want a different type of visitor who visits more than the most famous monuments in the centre,” said Hrubá.

In Budapest, officials are having similar thoughts. “Like in so many other big European tourist destinations, people have been getting exhausted by the scale of tourism,” said the city’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, in a recent interview at his office. “We want to spread out the spots in the city that are touristically interesting, and change the type of people who come. It shouldn’t only be bachelor parties and booze – we want to rebrand ourselves a bit,” he said.

These sentiments are not new, and there has been frequent talk of reclaiming cities for the locals across central Europe over the past few years. But the pandemic has provided the kind of opportunity for a rethink that would have been much more difficult when the usual flows of visitors were still arriving.

Budapest’s normally busy Zrinyi street, dominated by St Stephen’s Basilica, during Hungary’s Covid-19 lockdown. Photograph: Tamás Kovács/EPA

“I really hope that Budapest can build up a new face of tourism when this is over. Sometimes we surrendered to tourists, with local interests pushed back, and it definitely isn’t sustainable,” said Gábor Manek, who owns a number of restaurants and bars in Budapest and runs an electronic music festival.

“There are parks in Prague where all of the infrastructure was designed with tourists in mind, rather than locals, and we need to change that,” said Hrubá.

This summer, there will be a new focus on domestic tourism. The central European nations implemented some of Europe’s earliest and strictest lockdowns, and have largely avoided the overwhelming numbers of coronavirus cases seen in western Europe. Already, most countries in the region are well on their way out of lockdown, but strict travel restrictions on foreign arrivals are likely to stay in place for some time.

Budapest is looking into exchanges with other Hungarian cities, while Prague has launched a series of offers to tempt Czechs to discover their own capital. Previously, visitors would come to Prague for concerts or events but usually would not even stay the night, due to the crowds of tourists and inflated prices.

In Poland, the government is mulling handing out 1,000 złoty (£202) vouchers for those in full-time employment to use on domestic travel, to help kickstart the tourism economy. Employers would have to contribute just 10% of the value of the voucher.

For some older residents of central Europe, the deserted streets have provided a semi-nostalgic window back to their youth during the Communist period, before the arrival of mass tourism. But while many people have enjoyed seeing the sights of their own cities, the novelty has worn off as the severity of the economic impact of losing tourism becomes clear.

“A lot of people I know who wouldn’t dream of going to Market Square on a weekend because of the crowds had the initial reaction that it’s really nice now. But after a while, they admit it’s just eerie,” said Piotr Krasnowolski, a Kraków-based translator.

In Budapest, Manek said that, from conversations with fellow owners, he estimates that between 25% to 30% of bars and restaurants will simply not reopen. Many were only profitable due to the custom of passing tourists.

The hope is that by taking some time to rethink tourism strategies with the locals at the forefront, the cities will also become more satisfying destinations for tourists. “When the locals are happy, the visitors will be as well,” said Hrubá.