'Corruption tours' highlight Czech graft
Prague - Riding a wave of public disgust at graft, a new Czech travel agency has started tours highlighting sites linked to corruption, a social ill that has plagued the ex-communist country for decades.
The aptly-named CorruptTour agency touts the "best of the worst" trips to posh villas, a nonsensical funicular, an empty meadow hosting a non-existent Olympic stadium, even a big, boxy concrete mausoleum.
"The idea was to reverse the usual situation wherein corruption feeds on business by creating a business that uses corruption as input" by exposing it, said CorruptTour's founder Petr Sourek, a philosopher and translator.
In Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index, the Czech Republic ranked 57th alongside Namibia and Saudi Arabia on the list of 183 countries, topped by squeaky clean New Zealand and ending with Somalia.
"The worst thing is that the trend is getting worse," said David Ondracka, head of the international graft watchdog's Czech branch.
Ondracka went so far as to call corruption "a fundamental problem" for the country of 10.5 million that shed communism in 1989 and joined the EU in 2004.
Recent surveys suggest that most Czech managers think things can't work without corruption greasing the wheels of society.
Most Czechs don't believe the centre-right government is making good on promises to fight graft even though Prime Minister Petr Necas has sacked four ministers over corruption allegations since his cabinet took power in 2010.
"In the corruption segment, the Czech Republic has a lot to offer to both local and foreign visitors. The local corruption environment is extremely stable with moderate growth," CorruptTour says dryly on its website.
Their tour guide, wearing a funny orange hat and a waistcoat, is impossible to miss as he stands next to a black mini-bus with 26 tourists eager to embark on an "ornithological safari tour" of Prague's upscale "nests".
Resembling a Hollywood homes-of-the-stars circuit, this tour targets the residences of lobbyists and rich businessmen caught up in dodgy deals - "nesting birds", in the guide's words.
These include Ivo Rittig, a man said to rake in profits from each public transport ticket sold in Prague, and Martin Roman, former head of the power giant CEZ, suspected of handing hefty procurement deals to cronies. Press reports have repeatedly linked both men to graft but neither has ever been charged.
"Please be quiet, don't disturb the nesting birds. We might be attacked by a dominant male," tour guide Justin Svoboda pleads with hushed irony, provoking the laughter of tourists clicking their cameras as the bus pulls up outside a gaudy "nest".
He then points out a non-existent house which 589 companies have registered as their headquarters, and a university at which students obtain a degree in under a year - for the right price.
"It's here that the birds grow longer feathers in a very short time, which then help them extend their territory or lure a female," Svoboda explained.
"It's a fantastic experience," said Kristian Leko, a law student from Prague and one of the tourists.
"The extent of corruption here is unbelievable, they steal billions, everyone knows it, but no one has ever been sentenced, there's no evidence, the police and the judiciary have been manipulated," he said.
"We're famous for being a corrupt state - not that we should be proud of it," adds Radka Frejnova, a young woman on the tour.
The agency also offers a tour of hospitals known for shady tendering procedures, and a trip to the northern city of Usti nad Labem, the home of a pointless yet overpriced funicular and of a municipal park expensively decked out thanks to EU subsidies.
"Companies have now started to order tours, and we're also getting ready for an elementary school trip," said Sourek, whose agency also offers visits in English and German.
Souvenirs are a must. Besides badges and T-shirts with the agency logo, tourists can buy bearer shares - a non-transparent security which the Czech government has been reluctant to ban - and an anti-wiretapping gizmo to guard against pesky eavesdropping.
The agency became a hit as soon as it was launched in February, but some are less than pleased.
Prague Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda is dismayed at tourists flocking to a city hall building.
"Of course I'm not happy, but if we closed the door, we would only show nothing here has changed," said Svoboda, seen by Czech media as a breath of fresh air at the city hall since he took office in late 2010.
"Personally, I'm looking forward to the time when an UncorruptTour will organise city hall tours. That's what I'd prefer," he said.