Sunday, 22 October 2017

Change coming to Krkonoše

By Michal Komárek |
RESPEKT |
26 November 2008

Pec pod Sněžkou (ČTK): Pec pod Sněžkou is trying to avoid the fate of more developed mountain towns like Harrachov and Špindlerův Mlýn. (ČTK)

Pec pod Sněžkou: Pec pod Sněžkou is trying to avoid the fate of more developed mountain towns like Harrachov and Špindlerův Mlýn. (ČTK)Pec pod Sněžkou is trying to avoid the fate of more developed mountain towns like Harrachov and Špindlerův Mlýn. (ČTK)

Mountaineers, tourists and preservationists are working together to find a sustainable model for the Czech Republic's most popular mountains.

For a long time now, it is looking more and more as though Krkonoše mountains are transforming into a sort of strange housing development. The view of mountain peaks is being obscured by conglomerations of high-end apartment buildings. International tourists are leaving because in many pubs waiters are brazenly charging the same price for watered-down coffee what their somewhat more gracious colleagues in the Alps would charge for a decent espresso.

The worry that the specatacular natural surroundings will become little more than a stage set for dodgy development plans, however, might be unwarranted for the time being. New people at local town halls are talking to the directors of Krkonoše's national park and to locals about the future of the region's development. The debates suggest things are changing for the better.

Beauty of the horizon

Pec pod Snežkou represents one possible scenario of the region's future. This tiny town, maybe partly thanks to its more remote location, has so far eschewed the fate of Špindlerův Mlýn and Harrachov. But more importantly, its town hall is cooperating with renowned architect Roman Koucký. He is known as a staunch supporter of modern architecture (his projects demonstrate his ability to combine modern architecture with historic buildings). Now he is helping develop the zoning plan for Pec pod Snežkou.

He is living up to his reputation. "I basically just wanted to convince the town representatives that the Horizont hotel is the most beautiful building constructed here," he says. Horizont is a 12-storey high rise that has been towering over Pec since the 1970s. Most locals hate it, seeing it as symbol of communist development in the mountains.

The watered-down coffee here costs as much as an espresso in Austria. And yet, the town hall hired Koucký – at a time when a dispute in Pec erupted over a billion-crown investment for the construction of a new town square, circumscribed by hotels and apartment buildings. Koucký and Pec representatives agree that they don't want Pec pod Sněžkou to end up like Špindlerův Mlýn or Harrachov. To avoid that, they want to develop a system that would set strict guidelines for potetntial investors wanting to build in Pec.

From hay lofts to unions

This apartment building boom is right now the latest – and it appears finished – phase of trying to find a sustainable model for Krkonoše tourism and architecture. Even now, it is easy to tell that this phase didn't bring many positives. But going back to older traditions is not easy.

Tourists have been visiting Krkonoše since the first half of the 19th century. At first they were just a handful of lone Romantics and pilgrims, who would spend nights in the hay lofts of mountain cottages – at the time German owned and prosperous settlements.

Starting in the late 19th century, locals began to focus on tourism and started rebuilding their houses to accommodate visitors. The period before World War I saw a tourist accommodation and hotel building boom. The tourists were mostly members of the upper and middle classes, as well as students who favoured simpler lodgings.

After World War II, the Krkonoše area experienced turmoil: the expulsion of Germans, the arrival of new people and a decline in tourism and agriculture. Another transformation took place in the 1970s when unions started building their recreation facilities there. "Until the mid 1960s, no one was interested in visiting the mountains. Recreation was very Spartan – small huts with bunk beds, no restaurants, wood-burning stoves – that was classic," says historian Pavel Klimeš, who wrote the book Krajina Krkonoš v proměně staletí (The Changing Landscape of Krkonoše over a Century). "Things started changing with the start of Normalisation. Like with the cottage industry, the regime gave people a clear signal: Spend your holidays in the mountains, amuse yourselves and don't meddle in public affairs."

Companies that had money bought mountain huts from locals and from cottagers and rebuilt them into recreation facilities. No one at the time was concerned about whether the tourism industry worked based on sustainable economic principles. Staying in the mountains cost a couple of crows a day, and millions of people began visiting each year.

Further change came in 1989. The new era was characterised by the notion that Krkonoše could become a goldmine. The goal was clear: attract rich clients. The problem was that Krkonoše already at the time had the reputation the area is trying so hard to shed today: The prices are the same as in the Alps, but the quality of the services is on par with that of a company canteen. What's more, the mountains are small, so ski runs that go on for kilometres and kilometres and offer viws of snowy 3,000 metre-tall mountains like in the Alps simply don't exist there.

The apartment building boom was one of the efforts to bring Krkonoše to a new level. Luxury recreation apartments in mountain locations were built with the aim to attract rich Czechs. Why visit decrepit mountain huts with poor services when you could spend your vacation in your own apartment at a prestigious Krkonoše address?

It's too much for us

It worked wonderfully. In the last 10 years, more than a thousand apartments were built in Harrachov. In Špindlerův Mlýn it was 900. "From the developers' standpoint it was a success. Some CZK 10 billion were invested here," says Pavel Klimeš. Construction companies had commissions. Developers were able to sell quickly. But what translated to success for them wasn't always so good for the locals and for the Krkonoše region as a whole.

The era saw the emergence of ghost towns, filled with tall buildings that were empty most of the year because their owners saw them not only as signs of prestige but also as good investments. And yet mountain municipalities don't benefit from them at all, aside from being robbed of pristine mountain views.

In Harrachov, apartment buildings line the main street. In Hroní Mísečky, several tall buildings compete with the view of Kotel and Lysá mountain. In Pec, they stand near Horizont hotel, and a new building is going up at the edge of a forest across from a ski centre. Another five will go up on a meadow above the town. In Špindlerův Mlýn, apartment buildings now occupy not only the most beautiful locations with the best views, but they have also clogged up the downtown area.

But the demand for apartments is still there. The Savoy house in Špindlerův Mlýn's centre is not yet complete, and 18 of its 38 apartments have already been sold. Apartment prices hover around CZK 7-15 million.

Why did Krkonoše towns allow, even promote, the construction of apartment buildings when the municipality gains nothing from it? "Town representatives were unable to withstand the pressure of developers and politicians. You could almost say that these were people who up until then had experience with investments no bigger than the construction of a shed or a medium-sized ski lift. And suddenly they were being approached by investors' representatives and lawyers. Plus there was political interest," says Klimeš.

There were scandals, such as the one involving the Prague firm Navatyp. Navatyp built an apartment building in Špindlerův Mlýn with 38 apartments. It then sold them for two different prices – either for CZK 20,000 per square metre or for twice that amount. The cheaper apartments were bought up by several Prague city representatives, who also happened to be members of the selection committees that decided what lucrative commissions Navatyp should get. Local mayors also openly talk about another type of "business": In Špindlerův Mlýn, city hall councillors sold investors exemptions from certain building regulations and made several tens of millions of crowns. This money was used to buy a new firetruck, new tractors and other technical services for the town. Something similar happened in Pec: "We gave permission to an investor to buld five apartment buildings. In exchange, the investor reconstructed our school and kindergarten because we didn't have sufficient funds for this in the town budet," says Mayor Alan Tomášek.

In spite of this, developers have been unable to buy the good will of locals for good. "Apartment committees" in Špindlerův Mlýn and in Pec pod Sněžkou have disintegrated, following the local elections. And town halls are now pursuing new policies.

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.