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Officials counter warnings of dangers for Prague visitors

Czechs refute U.S. tourism report  Aug 21, 2008

On July 21, the U.S. State Department updated its information for tourists traveling to the Czech Republic. It warns against rising incidents of pickpocketing and street muggings. It also claims that incidents of violent crime are becoming more common in Prague.

“Travelers should be aware of the reported use of Rohypnol and other ‘date rape’ drugs in the Czech Republic,” the report said. “Caution should be used when accepting open drinks at bars or clubs.” American tourists are also being warned against cheating taxi drivers and being advised to pay special attention to their belongings while using public transport.

Tomio Okamura, spokesman for the Association of Tour Operators and Travel Agents of the Czech Republic, agrees with the evaluation and points out that tourists have already noted the growing security problems and have sought other destinations.

“Czech tourism is experiencing the largest crisis since the floods in 2002, and a solution is nowhere to be seen,” he said. “Maybe if we became a secure country overnight, tourists might come back. But that is just fiction. My own mother does not go to the movies anymore because she’d have to return alone after dark. Such a situation is unacceptable 19 years after the fall of communism.”However, government officials disagree with the U.S. report as well as Okamura’s grim assessment.

“The Czech Republic is among the safest countries in the world, and even the U.S. report admits that ‘the Czech Republic generally has a low crime rate,’ ” said Hynek Jordán, spokesman for the Regional Development Ministry. Jordán thinks tourists should be aware of risks before traveling to an unknown destination but should not be unnecessarily afraid.

“Tourists face the same dangers as they would visiting any other large city at home or in another country, and should behave accordingly. But there is nothing to be afraid of,” he said. To back his claim, Jordán cites the fact that Mercer ranks the Czech Republic 17th in the world with regard to safety and Prague ranks 45th out of 215 world cities.

Local police statistics also contradict the U.S. claims. “While Prague sees more criminality than other Czech cities, it is safe compared with other large European cities, and the situation is improving,” said Prague Police spokeswoman Eva Miklíková. The total crime rate has steadily dropped over the past five years, Miklíková added. In 2007, police registered 16,000 fewer crimes in Prague compared with 2002. Violent crime represents 3.1 percent of the total crime rate in Prague and has also dropped.

Last year, police registered only 1,180 incidents of theft and pickpocketing. “We are in contact with police forces in Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw and other cities, and we can say that, while pickpocketing is a large problem in Prague, the situation is not as bad as it is elsewhere,” Miklíková said. “This year, we have managed to arrest several gangs specializing in pick pocketing.”As for the use of date rape drugs, police dismiss all accusations. Usage spread in the early 1990s but currently such cases are rare, with police records showing only 10 to 15 instances each year.

“It should be noted that it is almost solely used by ‘women of disrepute.’ We have no information that bar or restaurant personnel engage in such activities. The reporting in U.S. media is blown out of proportion. Tourists are not at risk from date rape drugs if they behave responsibly,” Miklíková said.Contradictory reports The latest numbers concerning tourism released Aug. 15 by the Czech Statistical Office do not point to any tourism crisis as Okamura said.

While the second quarter of 2008 saw a drop in tourists compared with the second quarter in 2007, it was only 0.1 percent, or 3,010 tourists. On the other hand, three-, four- and five-star hotels have seen a significant increase in guests while hostels and other accommodations recorded losses.

In the long term, Prague is attracting a growing number of tourists willing to pay more while students move farther east to cheaper destinations.Overall, Czech officials have been quick to tone down the U.S. report and do not expect it to have any impact on local tourism. “If American tourists took everything the State Department published seriously, they’d never travel anywhere,” Jordán said.

He further pointed out that, according to the country-specific information in the report, Slovakia is controlled by foreign mafias, trains in the United Kingdom are dangerous and, in France, withdrawing money from an ATM could lead to murder. “Other West European countries have lists that are five times longer than the brief warning the Czech Republic gets. This proves there is nothing to worry about. Honestly, we do not expect this warning to have any impact on tourist choices,” Jordán said.

Czechs refute U.S. tourism report

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