For decades, its mesmerising blend of baroque and gothic beauty was closed to mass tourism by the iron curtain that divided the communist east from the capitalist west during the cold war.
Now Prague, which has gained an unenviable reputation as a destination for stag nights and pub crawls, has become the latest European city to propose a radical assault on Airbnb and other short-term letting platforms as over-tourism threatens to overwhelm it and drive out residents.
Under plans pushed by the city’s liberal mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, property owners would be barred from leasing out entire flats except when it was their own home and they were temporarily vacating it. Tourists demanding Airbnb rentals would be limited instead to single rooms in accommodation where the owner also lived.
Speaking to the Observer in his office in Prague’s new city hall – near the heart of the tourist district – Hřib, a member of the Pirate party, said the idea was the focal point of a scheme to “give Prague back to the people of Prague” and mitigate the negative effects of tourism.
He said Airbnb’s growth had turned the city, once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and later a jewel of the Habsburg monarchy, into a “distributed hotel” and that failure to regulate it was “eating the city from inside”.
“In the past, you could limit the amount of tourists in the city simply by approving a certain number of hotels of certain capacity during the process of building permits,” said Hřib. “Now in Prague there is no possibility for the city to limit the accommodation capacity for tourists. The numbers are really critical.”
Nearly 8 million tourists flocked to the city – total population, 1.3 million – in 2018, up from 2.6 million in 2000, numbers that are expected to keep rising and which Prague’s infrastructure and finances are ill-equipped to cope with.
The increase has accelerated as Airbnb has consolidated its presence, transforming previously sleepy residential districts into busy zones characterised by foreign visitors with tell-tale wheeled suitcases in residential blocks.
An impact report from the city’s institute of planning and development said the number of Airbnb outlets almost tripled from 5,537 in March 2016 to more than 13,000 in May 2018, representing a jump from 17,913 to 52,738 in the number of beds. Eighty per cent of available rentals are entire flats.
The result has been an increase in noise and disturbance to long-term residents and soaring property values and rents that have priced locals out of the housing market. An average Prague resident needs to pay 14 times the annual salary excluding tax, housing, eating and clothing costs to buy a flat in the city, the mayor said.
Meanwhile the council has faced a widening financial shortfall as the nominal local tax levied on owners, some of whom live outside the Czech Republic, often goes unpaid and fails to cover the costs of the growing strain on resources and services.
“This is far beyond the original idea of the shared economy where you are supposed to let a tourist stay in your home, you cook the breakfast and you tell them something about your nice city,” Hřib said. “This is just a distributed hotel, where you abuse the comfort of other citizens in the city, the local residents, and seek your own profit at their expense.”
The European court of justice recently ruled that platforms like Airbnb were “information society services” rather than estate agencies, making them harder to regulate.
Hřib plans to overcome this by persuading the Czech regional development ministry to back legislation allowing local authorities to issue their own laws and decrees on short-term holiday lets according to local conditions. Similar efforts have previously failed, but the mayor insists that the growing awareness of Prague’s problem has generated enough political support for a law to pass.
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