New Prague tourist trail spotlights graft and sleaze

PRAGUE Fri Feb 24, 2012 5:04pm GMT

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Prague has long been a favoured destination for its medieval looks and cheap beer, but one travel agency has freshened up the offering with a new type of tourism experience which spotlights graft and sleaze.

Corrupt Tour has made a hit out of "The Best of the Worst" trips showing places tied to scandals that have plagued the country's political life.

The project has caught the zeitgeist in a country of 10.5 million people, where public debate has been dominated by revelations of dodgy deals in everything from multi-billion dollar army contracts to a scheme suspected of skimming nearly a cent from every city transport ticket.

"Our target is to get Czech corruption on a UNESCO list of the world's cultural heritage," said Pavel Kotyza, one of the Corrupt tour organisers.

"We are sold out for a week ahead. We are adding German and English tours and thinking about Russian, Italian and even Japanese."

The Czech Republic, like neighbouring Slovakia and other formerly communist countries, has undergone a profound economic and political transformation over the last two decades. But many of the country's institutions have struggled with graft and a system where prosecutions are rare and convictions even more so.

The new agency offers a range of tours. One popular tour, called Safari, takes tourists around the villas and walled-in estates of businessman linked to big state orders.

On a tour this week, a group of about 20 Czechs of various ages and professional backgrounds was taken to the Prague city hall. A guide - with accessories in orange and blue, the colours of the two biggest political parties - gave lectures on anonymously owned trusts, bearer shares and dodgy tenders.

Walking through the corridors of city hall, participants are told how deals are done with mysteriously owned companies as the "tourists" glare at a clerk just inside the offices.

Another stop is a construction site of a huge road tunnel which has run into delays and a $530 million (334 million pound) cost increase. The following stops included an empty field where an Olympic stadium should have been built, but never was - a project that sucked millions in preparations although many critics said it was a clear non-starter from the beginning.

The emergence of a corruption tour agency reflects not only that graft is a problem, but that public awareness for a clean-up is also growing.

The country's centre-right government in office since 2010, as well as new leadership at city hall, have won cautious praise from non-governmental groups for improving the way taxpayers' money is spent.

Exposing public officials to ridicule from tour groups may help in itself, said Eva Richterova, a 32-year old participant on the tour.

"There is so much of this nasty stuff that it's time to do something about it. And maybe this will help a little," she said.

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