City recovers from Danish tourist surge
Police on high alert after 10,000 unsupervised students descend on city
Posted: February 27, 2013
Police have been on high alert in tourist hotspots the past few weeks, raiding several bars in Old Town to check for underage drinkers.
On what would otherwise be a low-key Thursday night in the center of Prague, a sizeable group of 50 or so Danish students are knocking back pints of beer at a pub on Wenceslas Square. As bar staff watch nervously for signs of trouble, the students chatter noisily among themselves, getting up only to use the bathroom or buy more drinks.
Except for some overexuberance from the group's more amorous males, who tried in vain to impress their female companions by dancing on the tables, the evening remained incident-free and could have passed for any other busy party night.
That, though, was in stark contrast to the previous week, when Danish students visiting the Czech capital became embroiled in drunken brawls and vandalized hotels. The news reverberated throughout the two countries, with the finger of blame pointing in several directions.
"Last week they were f***ing crazy," said 20-year-old Emil, one of Thursday's revelers. "This week, we haven't done anything at all." His friend Stina, 18, added, "We're so ashamed. A few people ruin it for everybody else. We think people hate us, so we've been telling them we're from Sweden."
But while some like Emil and Stina have openly expressed their embarrassment about the incidents, others - mainly in the hotel and entertainment industry - have sought to play down the seriousness of the problem, keen no doubt to protect a vital stream of winter tourism.
According to Denmark's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Christian Hoppe, some 10,000 students from his country made the trip to Prague this February. He said they were attracted by cheap prices, including for beer, but that they still had to take responsibility for their actions.
"What happened is totally unacceptable," Hoppe told The Prague Post. "Thankfully it calmed down, but we will draw whatever lessons we can from it to prevent such a thing happening again. Hopefully it will be a unique case."
This year, there were four times more Danish students in Prague than during the same period in 2012, a fact Hoppe puts down to the group effect, as word of holiday plans spread quickly around schools.
"When you're living at home, there's a certain solid framework to your daily life," he said. "Then all of a sudden, you're away with the whole class, you're away from your parents, and some people can't handle it, unfortunately. It relates to a small minority of course, but as always, if a minority is boisterous, it attracts attention."
Hoppe, whose embassy has been forced to perform an exercise in damage limitation, says the scandal first caught the eye of local media when a student, named in reports as 18-year-old Nicolai Toftegaard, was knifed outside the Karlovy lázně nightclub, next to Charles Bridge, Feb. 10.
Three days later, a large-scale fight broke out at the Panorama Hotel in Prague 4, leading to the hospitalization of one person who also suffered stab wounds. Both times, the violence seemed to involve rival groups of Danes.
Responding to the trouble, police beefed up their patrols around the city and redirected resources to notorious tourist hotspots, where they found "dozens" of underage Danish drinkers, said Prague police spokesman Tomáš Hulan. On one typical night during the problem period, officers raided more than 30 establishments suspected of serving underage drinkers, carrying out checks on around 700 young people. The majority of illegal cases were found among Danes.
The scandal led to Denmark's foreign affairs minister, Villy Søvndal, issuing a strongly worded statement that condemned their actions, while a group of Danish citizens with permanent residence in the Czech Republic showed their anger in a press release Feb. 15.
"We hereby express our sincere disappointment at the happenings that have taken place in Prague over the past week," the release read. "It is an example of the unacceptable and inappropriate behavior of some tourists, which has besmirched the reputation of the larger tourist group and our nation in general."
One of the signatories of the release, Allan Christiansen, added he would like to see those who misbehaved held accountable, including criminal prosecution for anyone old enough to stand in court.
"The parents should face the consequences on behalf of any underage student, while those over 18 should be treated like adults and pay the price," he said. "All Danes are frustrated there are no consequences for the parents, students or indeed the travel agency."
Delays and disorganization
That agency, Rejsemægleren, has been criticized for its chronic disorganization. Students at the pub on Wenceslas Square spoke of chaotic scenes as they piled onto coaches at Danish bus terminals, claiming they weren't even asked to show their tickets. The confusion continued in Prague, where hotels were often overbooked and tour guides lacking.
In postings on the consumer review website Trustpilot.dk, other disgruntled customers accused Rejsemægleren of breaking the law. "The agency used a bus company whose drivers put passengers in danger by not complying with rest rules," one person wrote, while another said, "My daughter was waiting for a bus in the cold for seven hours on the way to Prague and 10 hours on the way home."
On its own website, Rejsemægleren advertises Prague as "one of the most popular and beautiful destinations in Europe." Indeed, 200,000 Danes come here very year, but the agency is targeting a specific sort of tourist.
Its series of four four-night trips - costing from 1,345 Danish kroner ($235/180 euros) - promised "some of Eastern Europe's best nightlife" and boasted that "prices are cheap by Danish standards." Defending his company, Kristian Aksel Nielsen, Rejsemægleren's owner, says this is the first time in five years the agency has experienced problems.
"Unfortunately, our Danish partner who was responsible for buses pulled out 10 days before the first departure date," he said. "We had to find another partner, and it was only a German firm that could guarantee our required capacity. There were heavy police checks on all buses going in and out of Denmark, so that is the reason for some delays in departures."
Nielsen says any future tours will see more guides per guest, a better dialogue with hotels and stronger cooperation with the Danish Embassy and Czech police. But that might not be enough to reassure parents who will now have concerns over letting their children travel to Prague without proper supervision next year.
According to Jan Pína, the manager of Beer Factory in central Prague, pubs and clubs already witnessed a drop-off in the number of students on the fourth and final trip. "We were waiting for around 3,500 people, but only 500 came," he said. However, Pína added it was unfair to expect tourists to spend money in Prague only by visiting the popular sightseeing attractions.
"Until now, nobody chose the city as a party town," he said. "That's why people were surprised. Thousands of young people came to Prague, and they wanted to drink. That was a shock for a lot of people, but on the other hand, they brought their money here. It's a question of deciding what we want."
Despite hundreds of thousands of crowns worth of damage being inflicted on hotels around the city, with students trashing their rooms and setting off fire extinguishers, it appears nobody in the industry has been prepared to speak out against their conduct.
Vlastislav Šos, general manager of the Hotel Olympik in Prague 8, called the students "our clients of the future." He says his 645-bedroom hotel has already taken approximately 2,000 advance Danish bookings for the 2014 winter holiday season but fears the well-publicized incidents this year may keep some of them away.
"If we didn't have the Danish students in February, Prague would be empty, the hotel would be empty, and the costs are so high," Šos said. "We are grateful for their business. But if the parents say, 'You will not go to Prague next year,' it can be a massive problem for Prague hotels."
- Matěj Moravec contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
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