Prague: The Las Vegas of Europe No More?
Tourists who come to Prague to get wasted outdoors beware: your days of public carousing are numbered. In an attempt to clean up its streets, the Czech capital moved last week to ban public drinking in 378 spots, the overwhelming number of them located in the city’s District One. These bring Prague's total number of banned spots for outdoor drinking - public spaces at intersections, squares and entire streets, rather than the bars contained within them - up to a total of 837. The 459 spots already banned before this month's move either failed to go far enough or simply pushed street drinkers slightly further out, as the additional places are typically on the edge of the center, at sites such as Střelecký Island in the middle of the Vltava River, or in the plaza in front of the Nova Scena Theater.
The changes will be enforced by police patrols and multilingual signs, as well as fines ranging from $45 to $450 for extreme cases. Prague, it seems, is more than ready to call time on its reputation among the rowdier sort of traveler as a seething beer pit.
To skeptics, the moves are as much driven by profit as public order concerns. Sidewalk drinking establishments with cordoned areas will not be affected, while moves earlier this summer to chase street musicians off the streets suggest the moves are partly about channeling people into paying venues. Locals and high season visitors may nonetheless be pleased to no longer witness beautiful streets turning into rivulets of drunken vomit, much of it British and American. And with public drinking being restricted to commercial venues rather than banned, the new restrictions can hardly be damned as a kill-joy ordnance.
Customers enjoy drinks at a cafe bar in Prague's district of Holesovice. (Petr Josek/Reuters)
The effect on the city as a whole is harder to call. The fact is, many discerning Praguers now largely shun the city’s oldest, most touristy corners, or restrict themselves to quiet backstreets there where visitors rarely penetrate. Luckily for them, Prague has many attractive outlying neighborhoods full of bars that make it easy to escape downtown’s tourist frenzy. Nights in once gritty Žižkov are almost as busy as in central Prague, while there’s also elegant Vinohrady, the gallery and warehouse district of Holešovice and former backwater and upcoming hipster favorite Vršovice. So far these areas have kept a largely local, if not exclusively Czech crowd. While some of this crowd may be hoping things simmer down a bit in central Prague and encourage them to return, others might be wary of the bachelor crowd leaving the area to come and crash their party.
This is a type of tourism for which, I'm afraid to say, the British are especially notorious, especially the bachelor crowd. Since the advent of super cheap European flights, no British bridegroom-to-be seems satisfied with a night of pre-wedding drinking in their hometown pub. The bachelor trip - or "stag weekend" in British - is increasingly common, with Eastern Europe cities especially popular for their cheap booze and strip clubs. While there are always people willing to cater to this rowdy trade, there's also invariably a trampling of local feet in the opposite direction whenever a bunch of leery, scarcely continent weekenders come into view.
This isn’t to suggest that Czech drinking habits are any way beyond reproach. According to the World Health Organization the country has the second highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world after Moldova. With levels of alcoholism high, poisonings from bootleg liquor got so bad that last September that the Czech government briefly banned all drinks over 20 percent alcohol by volume, lifting restrictions less than a fortnight later once the noxious flood had been stemmed. Such habits are less likely to be affected by the public drinking measures, however, which are more about effacing public nuisance than changing consumption levels.
The Czechs are hardly alone in clamping down. The sight of openly public European drinking can be as surprising to Americans as those absurd compulsory paper bags U.S. corner stores are to Europeans. But across Eastern Europe, tourist destinations are growing increasingly intolerant of rowdy visitors, whether it’s in Bulgaria, Croatia or Latvia. Formerly desperate for international revenue at any cost, they’re increasingly moving to make sure tourists either simmer down or stay out.