A recent visit to Prague was motivated in large part by a desire to see friends we’d made while living there some years ago. But naturally, once there we spent most of our time exploring the cultural and art offering of the city. So in my reckoning, I classed as a ‘cultural tourist’ more than a ‘friends and family’ (VFR) one.
My first observation is that, key visitor attractions aside, it isn’t easy to find a way beyond the obvious and deeper into the riches the city contains. Even in this age, internet searches pulled up little more than the mainstream tours; and it was lucky I knew – from having lived there – that there are jewels of fine and decorative art museums, respected concert halls and underground art cinemas. Even then, checking online for their performance schedules or opening times led me to websites that (although in English, just) looked like they have been built at the Big Bang of internet invention, and not updated since. Web 2.0 it isn’t.
And it seems a shame, and that they’re missing a big trick. For when we did arrive at these museums, cinemas or opera houses, we found that, for the English-speaking visitor at least, the service was service was excellent, the interpretation, labelling, sub- and sur-titling comprehensive (and comprehensible), the quality of the art new, intriguing or excellent as required. And cheap! Even though food, transport and other prices in Prague have shot up, the price of entry to these national art treasures remains ridiculously cheap. Though they could clearly do with more money, and increasing their overseas visitor numbers (let alone prices) would surely help. See my blog Exploring Prague for some examples – and ideas for exploring beyond the tourist rounds.
So is there anything British cultural organisations can learn about boosting cultural tourism from the Prague example?
From the negative, we could realise the importance of translating our websites – or at least the main explanation and visitor information – into the most important other languages for potential visitors, so the sites can be found through foreign-language search engines while visitors are planning their trip, in the flush of enthusiasm and while they still have cheap internet access at home.
And from the positive, the degree to which English labelling is available is impressive. We were even able to attend the opera, seeing The Makropolous Case in Czech, because the whole thing was subtitled in English. It seemed to be standard practice. But when I mused with my Czech friends about what language British cultural provision should adopt for live performance subtitling, they were unanimous – English! So much of our country’s appeal is in our language, and the fact that people from so many countries want to learn English. It motivates many visits. But once here, it’s hard to use the visit to improve. Hard to get their ‘ear in’. In London (at least) it’s likely they will hardly ever hear English spoken by someone for whom it is a mother tongue. But they are reluctant to attend the theatre, films or opera for fear of not really understanding the language in situ. So backing up what they hear, with a written version would both promote their enjoyment and add a learning opportunity to boot.
So come on, let’s view sub-titles or sur-titles – whether in the theatre, opera or cinema – not as a cost or as a rare nod to the deaf and hard of hearing (though they will benefit too) but as an opportunity to increase income from the overseas visitors to Britain.