The Czech Republic's entry into the Schengen visa zone has made it easier for agents to sell this destination.
Prague is a city largely ignored by travel agents, but the Czech Republic's entry into the Schengen visa zone has now made it easier to sell this hip destination.
Prague has been top of every European's must-visit list for almost a decade - a trendy city untouched by both world wars offering historical architecture and contemporary culture in abundance.
Yet due to the absence of direct flights to the Czech capital, Middle East travellers - and therefore travel agents - continue to dismiss it along with the rest of Eastern Europe.
"Europeans love Prague and Australians, Kiwis, Americans adore it. It's an extremely popular place, and yet here in the Middle East, nobody seems to know about it. It's a real shame - Europe's best kept secret," explains John Flower, product manager at Dubai-based Alpha Holidays.
"Travel agents aren't selling Eastern Europe because of a lack of knowledge, there's a lack of understanding of the destinations - including Prague - which makes it difficult to sell. Maybe if the Czech tourist board was more active it would help?"
Despite these difficulties Flower says that having recently introduced the destination to a number of clients the city is slowly gaining popularity.
"I'm finding the interest still seems to be from the expatriate community living in Dubai, but it's just a case of the locals getting to know it. Word of mouth is the key to business here and now there are small numbers going over there, especially the younger generation, but we could certainly use a bit of a push," he says.
That much needed boost may have just arrived with the Czech Republic joining the Schengen visa zone, connecting it to popular destinations like France, Italy and Germany.
"It's going to make it so much easier for everybody, because once travellers have the Schengen visa they can move freely through most of Europe - including the Czech Republic," says Flower.
He adds that some countries are making it difficult to obtain the Schengen visa, but as long as the Czech Republic doesn't become one of them, Prague's popularity will grow.
"If you've got an itinerary that includes France, if that's your first port of call, you have to buy the visa through them and they make it quite difficult," he says.
"The Czechs having the Schengen visa provides travellers with another gateway into the European mainland, so it will simplify travel and entice visitors from the Middle East - providing they aren't difficult when issuing visas."
The city currently appeals to young couples and groups of friends, according to Flower, who will travel there for a city holiday focused primarily on shopping.
"Prague offers excellent value for money because it's a new member of the European Union and the Euro hasn't bitten there yet," he explains.
"It seems to be a trend that where the Euro is introduced, prices sky rocket, but the Czech Republic hasn't been affected yet and prices are comparatively low."
Flower is so confident that Prague will be discovered by more Middle East clients that he has put together a multi-country package for Alpha Holidays' forthcoming brochure in an attempt to take advantage of the freedom to travel created by the Schengen visa.
"The package will use rail to connect Prague, Vienna and Budapest because they are interrelated and it seems to be a very popular tourist route," he says.
"It will have wide appeal with the expatriate community, but I do believe that the younger generation of locals will be attracted to it. There aren't too many agents over here that are actually featuring Eastern Europe - Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia - so it's just a matter of letting people know that we do it."
Alpha Holidays will include three Prague properties in its brochure - the 55-room five-star Hotel Savoy located in the diplomatic quarter close to Prague Castle - the seat of the country's president; the four-star 146-room Novotel Praha Wenceslas Square; and the Andels Hotel Prague - a four-star deluxe design hotel located in the new Andel City retail area close to a host of designer shops and restaurants.
Big name appeal
The Rocco Forte Collection is set to make its entry into Prague with the 101-room The Augustine Hotel in late-2008 and the group's general manager for hotel operations and new openings, Martin Elsner, believes that the brand's global renown will entice Middle East travellers to Prague.
"We have an advantage because we have taken over a project in Abu Dhabi (see page 27), so we will be known in the UAE market and that project could act as a window into other destinations. If people experience the Rocco Forte Collection in their country they are more likely to start travelling to our new hotels in places like Prague," he says.
The hotel was due to open in April, but its location in the historic diplomatic zone of the city and the fact that it will combine six old convent buildings dating back to 1265 has led to problems with UNESCO world heritage and it will now open in October or November 2008, according to Elsner.
Located in Mala Strana near Prague Castle, which is a popular tourist attraction, the property will incorporate St Thomas Monastery - a building that dates back to the 15th century and is home to a number of practicing Augustine friars. The rooms will provide views over Prague as well as a number of courtyards and garden squares.
"As well as providing a beautiful property, we will offer prayer times and carpets for Arabic guests as well as a Koran, Arabic newspapers and Arabic television programmes for both adults and children," adds Elsner.
"We will also offer a range of packages - honeymoon packages and family packages -as well as connecting rooms for all categories."
This will be the group's first Prague property, but Elsner says Forte's experience with the Arabian market at its other European properties will enable it to cater to the needs of Middle East guests.
"From the London or Munich hotels we know the Middle East customers, we have the contacts and we will be able to support them in Prague and make them feel welcome. We will be able to organise activities that they will be interested in - tours on the river or a private driver to visit the castles.
"The Middle East is a very important market for our Munich property and Munich to Prague is about three to four hours so they may look to visit Prague," he says.
"Prague may be seen as a very attractive destination, alongside Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. It's certainly a niche product, as it does not have direct flights, but people are always looking for things that aren't like New York where everyone's going - something special."
The Group will be promoting the Prague property at next month's Arabian Travel Market as well as through sales calls to agents throughout 2008, and as the existing Rocco Forte properties feature in Dnata Holidays' brochure, this new hotel is likely to as well according to Elsner.
"And with the Abu Dhabi project there is a direct link, so we will promote activities that could be interesting for customers visiting Prague and are able to provide information for agents, such as videos of Prague or other promotional material," he concludes.
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