Prague and the Czech Republic have been slow to encourage and adopt sustainable tourism practices. Part of the blame, like everything else, goes to Communism. For 40 years from 1948 to 1989, industries, roads, and vast public housing tracts were built up with scant concern for their effect on the environment. By the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the city and country were on a downward ecological spiral. Large areas in the north of the country had been destroyed by strip mining and acid rain produced by rampant coal burning. In Prague, the air was unbreathable during winter inversions, when slow-moving high-pressure systems would trap dirty air in the lower atmosphere. On those days children would be bused out of the city to camps in the countryside. The city was still pumping raw sewage into the Vltava River.
The good news is that the city authorities have taken big steps toward cleaning up the air and the river. Much of the city is now heated by natural gas, not coal, leaving the air much cleaner in the winter months -- though a huge increase in car ownership has mitigated some of these gains. Sewage is now treated before it's released into the river. The water is still too polluted to swim in, but every year brings an improvement in water quality.
Much remains to be done. Auto exhaust, for one, remains a significant source of air pollution. In the outlying areas, property developers have transformed large swaths of land into residential and office complexes, destroying green areas and adding more roads and cars to the mix. On a more subtle note, the massive increase in tourism in the past 20 years has contributed to a form of cultural environmental damage, where once thriving urban areas in the center have been transformed into largely tourist-only zones. High-rent souvenir shops, selling cheap glass and T-shirts, have forced out legitimate shops and services, and high rents have pushed ordinary Czechs into other parts of town.
There are signs that the national and municipal authorities are aware of the problems, but are still at odds at how best to solve the problems while keeping the city's economy, particularly its very important tourism industry, on track. The 2009 global economic recession didn't help matters.
While there is not much you can do as a short-term visitor, it's at least good to be aware of the impact your trip is having on the local economy. In general, when shopping, try to avoid the dozens of shops in the center, especially along Karlova street, that traffic in cheap, mass-produced items like factory-made puppets, Russian nesting dolls, and fake KGB hats that are not made locally and have little connection to the Czech Republic. Seek out instead the smaller stores, away from the action, that offer genuine, high-quality Czech made goods, like handmade puppets and jewelry from Czech garnets. In our shopping section, we've identified some of these places. A small but growing number of hotels have adopted sustainable practices, such as curbing unnecessary water use and recycling, but there's still much room for improvement on this front. For further information on steps the Czech government is taking toward protecting the environment, turn to the website of the Czech Ministry of the Environment (www.mzp.cz).
The not-for-profit Friends of Czech Greenways (www.pragueviennagreenways.org) is a foundation dedicated to promoting ecofriendly tourism by building up an infrastructure of hiking, biking, and water routes around the country, including several projects in Prague.
In addition to the above, the following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel. For a list of even more sustainable resources, as well as tips and explanations on how to travel greener, visit www.frommers.com/planning.
- Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
- In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO; www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making vacations sustainable.
- In Canada, www.greenlivingonline.com offers extensive content on how to travel sustainably, including a travel and transport section and profiles of the best green shops and services in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary.
- In Australia, the national body that sets guidelines and standards for eco-tourism is Ecotourism Australia (www.ecotourism.org.au). The Green Directory (www.thegreendirectory.com.au), Green Pages (www.thegreenpages.com.au), and Eco Directory (www.ecodirectory.com.au) offer sustainable travel tips and directories of green businesses.
- Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
- Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodation ratings. The Hotel Association of Canada (www.hacgreenhotels.com) has a Green Key Eco-Rating Program, which audits the environmental performance of Canadian hotels, motels, and resorts.
- Sustain Lane (www.sustainlane.com) lists sustainable eating and drinking choices around the U.S.; also visit www.eatwellguide.org for tips on eating sustainably in the U.S. and Canada.
- For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org). For information about the ethics of swimming with dolphins, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).
- Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.