PRAGUE — Crowds of tourists stroll along Prague’s famous Charles Bridge, but the Czech capital and other places in Europe expect a lacklustre tourist season amid the economic crisis.
Data released at a European conference on tourism held in Prague last week showed that the occupancy of European hotels fell by an average 10 percent in the first quarter.
Room bookings in Prague fell by 18 percent, Budapest by 20 percent, and Paris, the world’s most visited city, dipped by five percent.
“We are in a period of economic imbalance, the crisis has had its repercussions and we have to develop new strategies,” said Konstantinos Tatsis from the European Union’s Committee of the Regions.
No European country has been spared — in Spain, hotel occupancy fell by 15 percent in the first quarter and 60,000 employees in tourism have lost their jobs this year.
For Portugal, the trade association of hotels, restaurants and cafes in the EU (HOTREC) expects a 10-20 percent decline in occupancy for full-year 2009.
“The number of trips is still growing, but people travel on a tighter budget, they look for cheaper accommodation and spend less in restaurants,” said Christophe Demunter, an expert at the EU’s statistics office Eurostat.
One in six Europeans will not go on holiday this year because of the crisis, and one-third of Europeans say the crisis has affected their holiday plans, a recent Eurobarometer poll has shown.
Those who will go on holiday will take shorter trips and many opt to go off-season, the pollsters said.
This may explain a slight growth in guest numbers at Prague hotels in April, following a sharp decline in the first three months of the year, local experts said.
But like other places, the Czech capital is suffering from a decline of business tourism as the global crisis has resulted in companies reducing travel for executives and reduced the number of events and conferences.
“Hopefully we are at the bottom, but the signs of recovery are still very thin,” said Akos Niklai from HOTREC.
“The survival of 1.6 million enterprises and nine million jobs is at stake” in Europe, he added.
Hotel and restaurant managers said at the conference in Prague on Wednesday and Thursday that they were pinning hopes on indirect aid such as cuts in value-added tax and the lifting of visitor’s tax.
But Belgian consultant Rafael Myncke, an expert on leisure-time economics, said the tourist industry must not merely wait for possible rescue plans or focus on price discounts.
Above all, entrepreneurs in tourism must “prove their creativity” in attracting more non-European tourists who now make up only 13 percent of all tourists on the continent.
“Nothing can rival or substitute the value of historic cities such as Prague,” said Myncke.
Jakob Stouman, a Danish analyst at Oxford Research, said that those who have not been hit by the crisis look mainly for expensive experiences, and towards eco-tourism which is still largely undeveloped in Europe.
“Nobody wants to give up his holiday,” he said but added that the global recession following years of abundance and consumerism had made people change their patterns.
Stouman said tourism would be the worst-off because of “budgetary asceticism”, whereby tight-fisted tourists would prefer holidays to be “simple, basic and near their homes.”
This tendency has begun to emerge in France where hotel bookings for the summer have fallen and camp sites have registered record bookings which rose by 3.0 percent compared with the already excellent 2008 season.
European tourism, which turns over 163 billion euros (229 billion dollars) a year, is expected to fall by 3.5 percent this year, according to data announced in Prague.