Diana Dalton at Karlovy Vary - Change

Going on Assignment in Prague July 2023 – July 8, 2023

Czechia: Old Ties, New Tensions

By Diana Dalton

by Diana Dalton

War has brought changes to a famed spa town, but Russian speakers still abound. 

The sound of Russian fills the streets in Karlovy Vary, a western Czech spa town of about 50,000 residents. In Prague and beyond, many assume the economic sanctions and travel restrictions imposed by the European Union in response to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine led to an exodus of the city’s Russian-speaking tourists; instead, locals say there are as many as ever.

International visitors have long flocked to the spa town 120 kilometers from Prague, near the border with Germany – where it is known as Karlsbad – drawn by luxury resorts and renowned mineral springs. In a tourist trend dating back to the Soviet era, many businesses in the city have historically catered to and relied on wealthy Russian vacationers.

“After the Iron Curtain fell, it was the Russian businessmen who saved the city,” says 23-year-old Pavel Gabris, a receptionist at Karlovy Vary’s bustling Hotel Krivan. “Without them, none of this would be built.”

Gabris, a Karlovy Vary native who has worked at the hotel for three years, estimates that half of the hotel’s guests are Russian speakers. Before the war, most of them came from Russia. Now, he says many of the Russian speakers who visit the hotel live in Germany, with Russian-speaking tour groups also arriving from countries with large Russian diaspora populations such as Israel and France. He believes the diaspora travelers are homesick for a taste of Russian culture, with direct flights between European Union countries and Russia having been unavailable for months and with no resumption in sight. Some Russians still reach the European Union by booking connecting flights through countries whose airspace remains open to Russian planes, such as the United Arab Emirates. As the war pushes on, Czechia has become the first European Union nation to issue a blanket ban on visas for Russian citizens.

A Shared History

Both Russian and Ukrainian nationals have long had a home in Karlovy Vary. According to data from the Czech Statistical Office, Ukrainians and Russians were the third- and fourth-largest groups, respectively, of foreign residents in the Karlovy Vary region from 2004 to 2020, all the years for which data is available. Many are naturalized citizens. Added to those who have lived here for years are recent Russian-speaking arrivals, many of them Ukrainians from the south and east where Russian is often spoken and Russians who received visas because of a history of dissent as activists or independent journalists.

A Ukrainian flag and a statue of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia, near a branch of the Russian state-owned Sberbank, shuttered in Karlovy Vary since February in response to EU sanctions.

Gabris believes that Russo-Ukrainian tensions have grown in Karlovy Vary since the invasion. Many hotels have done their part in providing accommodation to some of the more than 360,000 Ukrainian refugees that came to Czechia since the start of invasion; many businesses have added Ukrainian translations to their signage and menus, sometimes replacing the longstanding Russian-language versions. Ukrainian flags newly line the streets. Gabris himself supports the Ukrainian cause, but thinks that some changes have backfired and led to the ostracization of everyday Russian Czechs.

“There is a traditional kind of ice cream here, called ‘Russian ice cream’ or something like that,” Gabris says. “It’s been around forever. It’s been changed to ‘Ukrainian ice cream.’ I wouldn’t say it’s [going] too far, but I think it’s unnecessary.

“I have a colleague who is Russian, and she has been here for 18 years. She has kids here. They are going to kindergarten. They were born here, and they speak Czech. They are Czech kids, though they can speak Russian as well. There have been some problems with that. At school the other kids, they said verbatim: ‘Your mother is a murderer.’ ”

A street near the main spas in central Karlovy Vary. 

Vaclav Vitek, the managing director at Karlovy Vary’s Quisisana Palace hotel from 2016 to 2019, continues to work in the Czech tourism industry today. “Most accommodation properties and [Karlovy Vary’s] destination management strategy focused mainly on Russian-speaking countries … the spa town [was known as] being simply ‘Russian,’ ” he says.

Although he was not yet in Karlovy Vary at the time of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Vitek sees the situation now as entirely different.

“I started working in Karlovy Vary in March 2016 and have not felt the 2014 invasion had any impact on Russian travel whatsoever. In my opinion, this was due to a very light political reaction in Europe with only a few sanctions in place,” he says.

“In 2022, I was no longer there, but from what I have heard from my former colleagues, properties who have not diversified their nationality and demographic client portfolio have been struggling massively. It is important to say that this influences mainly hotels with Russian clientele. There are some exceptions with properties focusing on clientele from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan who are loyal, rich, and hungry to travel abroad after a long COVID phase.”

Currency exchange stands that line Karlovy Vary’s streets have replaced rates for Russian rubles with those for the Ukrainian hryvnia. At this stand, the ruble’s former space was simply taped over. 

An Uncertain Future

As the second-most visited city in Czechia after Prague, tourism is vital to Karlovy Vary. Shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in 12 workers in the Karlovy Vary region was employed directly in tourism, the highest share in any of Czechia’s 14 regions, according to the Czech Statistical Office.

Vitek also cites skyrocketing inflation as a further drag on Karlovy Vary’s tourism sector; visitors are returning to the city after two summers impeded by COVID-19, but they’re spending less than usual while business costs continue to climb. However, he thinks that the tightening of Europeans’ purse strings may encourage vacationers to seek out affordable destinations closer to home. This, along with the 2021 induction of Karlovy Vary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, could boost interest in the town among Czechs and other European travelers.

Despite the stresses facing the tourism sector, Karlovy Vary still boasted busy streets on a warm day at the height of the summer tourist season. Visitors of all ages navigated the city center holding spa cups adorned with traditional Czech designs, used to collect water from the various hot spring fountains around the city. More passed by on organized tours conducted in various languages, or snapped photos from a horse-drawn carriage ride.

Karlovy Vary is where 63-year-old Zdenka, who declined to use her surname, has spent almost every summer holiday for the past two decades. Talk of inflation can’t sour her love for this place, and the sights and sounds of Russian culture have always reminded the Prague native of her adopted city. She likes to spend her days on a bench in the city center, where she watches the world go by until it’s time for lunch to be served at her regular hotel.

When asked how many Russian-speaking visitors she has noticed in the city this summer, Zdenka replies simply, “More than ever.”

Diana Dalton is studying journalism at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She participated this past summer in Transitions’ foreign correspondent training course, during which she reported this article. 

Photos by the author.