Prague, one of the world’s most popular destinations, has launched a marketing campaign to attract domestic visitors to the city after COVID-19 ravaged the tourism industry.

On 13 March, the day the coronavirus lockdown began in the Czech Republic, Prague’s cobblestone streets, usually bustling with visitors, sat empty. Souvenir shops were shuttered. The clamor of tram lines echoed through the virtually deserted city center. In the span of just a few days, the tourist center of Czechia’s capital transformed into a ghost town.

“You could visualize that something’s not right,” Barbora Hruba, spokesperson for Prague City Tourism, the city’s official tourism marketing group said.

As the country closed its borders, tourists canceled their vacations and international students returned to their home countries, causing unprecedented changes for the tourism industry.

“Tourism dropped to zero and things were unraveling, changing day by day, and we had no idea what was going to happen,” Hruba said.

Flash forward four months, and the country has done relatively well in its battle against the coronavirus battle and has relaxed restrictions. But the crowds are still relatively thin, with visitors from abroad barred from traveling or not ready to do so. Hana Trestikova, Prague councilor for Culture and Tourism, has estimated that the city will lose 100 billion crowns in tourism revenue this year alone.

Drone footage of Prague deserted during lockdown. Screenshot via On Demand Footage/Youtube.

A major campaign has thus focused inward, on attracting Czechs from other parts of the country. The initiative – called “V Praze Jako Doma,” which roughly translates to “In Prague, as at home” – awards tourists points for each night they spend in select accommodations in the capital. The points can then be used to gain entry at a variety of attractions, such as the Prague Zoo, museums, galleries, and guided tours.

The campaign is the brainchild of Prague City Tourism. According to its Inbound Tourism Report, Czech residents made up just 15.4 percent of guests to the city in 2019, and on average, their stays lasted fewer than two nights.

The city government allocated 120 million Czech crowns ($5.15 million) to the campaign, thus enabling businesses to offer free tickets in return for the points without losing revenue, Hruba said. The points program – also sponsored by the Association of Hoteliers and Restaurateurs, the Prague Chamber of Commerce, and the Confederation of Trade and Tourism – began 1 July and lasts through the end of September.

Another Way of Seeing Prague

The tourism industry in Prague has experienced massive growth, with over 8 million visitors in 2019, an increase of more than 40 percent since 2012, according to Prague City Tourism.

Empty Charles Bridge during lockdown. Image by mekosh/Youtube.

The growing popularity of Prague as a tourist destination has caused problems – overcrowding in the city center, noise and quality-of-life complaints by residents, and the exodus of locals, who have tended to give the center a wide berth. According to Janek Rubes, a Prague-based writer and director who makes popular tourism videos with colleague Jan Mikulka, the majority of this influx of tourists was concentrated between two of the most popular attractions in the city center: the 663-year-old Charles Bridge, and the Prague Castle. The number of tourists in this area “was unbearable,” Rubes said.

Rubes, whose videos often focus on alternative ways to experience Prague, says that even with mass tourism, he has seen the Charles Bridge without crowds many times. “You can see it empty every day,” he said. “You just need to wake up early in the morning. You don’t need a global pandemic for that.”

A campaign targeting Czech residents already was in the works before the pandemic, Hruba said. “Everything happened a little faster and bigger than we expected, but focus on the domestic market is a huge part of a new strategy.”

St.Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. Photo by Annie Millman.

Now, with some welcome elbow room and a mostly maskless space to breathe, domestic visitors can seize the moment and enjoy Prague in an unexpected way – without the crowds.

Aubrey Simon is an editorial intern at Transitions, who is studying journalism at Baylor University in the United States.