In any normal year, March would mark the start of Prague’s long tourist season. Just as the weather begins to warm -- as perennial as those early buds on the trees -- the first big groups of Italians would start arriving in advance of the Easter holiday. Over the next six or seven months, more than 10 million people from around the world would follow. With those first dollars or euros they exchanged at the rip-off currency booths at the airport, their expenditures, for hotel overnights, restaurant meals, souvenirs, concert tickets and a thousand other things, would provide the city with a huge chunk of income and jobs for one in every 10 of its residents.
The year 2021 is shaping up to be anything but normal. Since the start of the year, as the number of coronavirus cases has continued to climb, the city has been in near-total lockdown. Most non-essential businesses remain closed and visitors are largely barred from entering the country. This follows a year, 2020, when -- judging from stats like the number of hotel overnights or passenger arrivals at Prague Airport -- the city's tourist economy shrank by something like 80-90%.
I’ve been in Prague long enough now to remember the disastrous flood of 2002, when the Vltava River crested its banks and flooded the Gothic cellars of the Old Town. This current calamity, if anything, feels on that scale, if not perhaps even worse. An odd feature of that earlier disaster was that while the damage it caused to outlying areas, like Smíchov and Karlín, was clearly visible to the naked eye, the damage to more central areas, like the Old Town, was harder to see. The buildings were still standing, but rotting from within. As I walked around the center of Prague last week, in mid-March, to survey and record the present-day damage, I felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. The empty storefronts and neglected, graffiti-covered buildings looked eerily familiar. All that was missing was a sharp stench of mildew hanging in the air.
I have no doubt that Prague, as it did after the 2002 flood, will recover when this is all over. The city’s beauty is still intact (and the beer will always be cheap and good). The question remains, though, what will have changed that we can’t yet see? What will the tourism landscape here look like once the world finally gets the all-clear? I take encouragement from the fact that two decades ago, Prague came back stronger and better than ever.
Here are some photos from that walk (scroll past the map for more images).