Only here for the beer (and sex)

British stag parties are being lured to Estonia's capital, Tallinn, with the promise of cheap booze and seedy strip clubs. Rich Cookson went to discover how the locals feel about their city's rebranding as 'the new Prague'

It's Saturday evening in downtown Tallinn and the streets are busy. Well-heeled Swedish couples are deciding where to eat, while Estonian teenagers and thirtysomething Russians enjoy the last of the summer sunshine. Business is brisk for the ubiquitous street-side peanut sellers, dressed in medieval costume, while a group of Finnish men stand outside a bar and decide where to head next.

It's Saturday evening in downtown Tallinn and the streets are busy. Well-heeled Swedish couples are deciding where to eat, while Estonian teenagers and thirtysomething Russians enjoy the last of the summer sunshine. Business is brisk for the ubiquitous street-side peanut sellers, dressed in medieval costume, while a group of Finnish men stand outside a bar and decide where to head next.

The winding cobbled streets, breath-taking architecture and easy sociability of this medieval capital have long attracted tourists from across Europe. About 2.7 million foreigners visited in 2003, attracted by high-quality eating and drinking, high culture and fascinating history. Behind the fastidiously well-preserved façades of the medieval buildings are chic bars and expensive boutiques. You could be in a fashionable part of Stockholm or Helsinki.

While relatively few Brits have visited Estonia, the few that have come here have for the most part charmed Tallinn's citizens. From taxi drivers to hotel staff, police officers and street vendors, Brits enjoy an impressive reputation: we're friendly, laid-back, polite and tip extremely well.

But things are about to change. Over the last two years, an increasing number of internet-based tourism companies have started to market Tallinn as the new destination for binge-drinking Brits. Targeting stag parties in particular, they promise cheap deals, cheap beer and cheap women. Without a hint of irony, many of them tout Tallinn as "the new Prague" - a city so overrun with drunken Brits that they reportedly account for 20 per cent of all weekend violent crime.

These websites suggest that Tallinn is a paradise for testosterone-fuelled males. "Our daytime activities are unbelievable - wild-boar hunting and combat shooting with the Estonian army," says one. Another claims that the city is "full of top quality women and cheap beer - or is it the other way round? One of the best things about stag dos in Tallinn is the range of options... from strip bars to Kalashnikov rifles." In addition to VIP club entry and paintball, it offers "24-hour bars, private strippers, lapdancing". For another, the highlight is a "medieval lesbian stripper show... a tradition in Tallinn since sixteen hundred and phwoar!" It promises that "one willing victim [will be] chosen as the meat in a lesbi-sandwich." The same company also offers nights in two East European capitals - "if your liver can stand it".

One even promotes its £20-a-head "totty tour" with two guarantees: "the tour specialises in bars that are packed with beautiful women" and "some of the bars will have working girls in". It concludes: "Get there now, it's the best kept secret in Europe."

Britain's press is also getting in on the act. "Tallinn-ho!" shouted the headline of one red-top newspaper last month. "It's cheap, full of some of the world's most gorgeous babes and is fast becoming the destination for Brit stag parties," it enthused, concluding: "The girls in Tallinn are certainly some of the most beautiful on the planet."

The number of Brits heading to Tallinn is certain to mushroom. From the end of October, the low-cost airline easyJet will start flying from London Stansted to Tallinn for as little as £26.99 one-way. But the combination of cheap flights and Tallinn's growing reputation as a stag destination are making some locals worried for the future. One bar has already banned large groups of Brits. Several hotels have "taken measures" against stag parties. The Estonian embassy in London is critical of companies offering "cheap, low entertainment" - and one of Tallinn's main operators is on the verge of quitting the stag-party market.

Tonight there's no evidence of bad behaviour. At Molly Malone's, one of the city's most popular bars, there are two large - but quiet - groups of Brits. Outside, two more Brits on a stag party are moving on to another bar. They're well-dressed and polite. "We've been getting drunk mainly, but we did a self-guided walk this afternoon to see the sights," Roger says. "We're here for a laugh, but not to go crazy." Elsewhere, eight Brits yawn and sip their beers. Dave, from London, is disappointed. "We came here because we heard it was good - but it's pretty quiet," he says.

At 1am, we visit one of the city's strip clubs. The place is empty and one of the strippers is vacuuming the hallway - a far cry from the debauched image presented by some of the websites. As for the "working girls" promised on another site, they too are in short supply - two weeks ago the police shut down 11 brothels.

Stag parties may only account for about five per cent of the direct-flight passengers from London, but locals are starting to notice that a new breed of Brit is coming to town. One taxi driver complains that a group of British lads ripped the seats in his taxi a few weeks ago - "they were quite trouble", he says. Another mentions a fight that a British stag party was involved in.

Steve Roman is a journalist and travel writer who has lived in Tallinn for four years. "The presence of British stag groups is an annoyance but I wouldn't characterise it as a problem - yet," he says. "These people bring in a lot of money but some downtown bars have been taken over by the groups - their presence is really felt and a lot of foreigners here really dislike them. The problem is that the town is small - it can't absorb more and more people without annoying others who come here. A lot of the guys who come here are normal people just having a good time - but there are places I now avoid because there are just too many of them."

Two young Tallinners, Nina and Stella, are waiting for a Swedish rock band to start playing at the nearby Krahli Baar. "The British come here because they think the booze is cheap and the women are too," says Stella. "They make too much noise and drive other people out of the bars. Brits are the new Finns."

Finns and Swedes have been coming on "vodka tours" for years, as spirits cost about half of what they do in Sweden and Finland. A litre of 80 per cent vodka, if you buy in bulk, costs less than £5, and while the authorities have recently limited the opening hours of alcohol shops - 7am to 11pm - alcohol is readily available at any time of day. Many bars stay open until the last drinker leaves; others simply don't close. During the summer, 48 ferries arrive in Tallinn every day, many of them disgorging hundreds of hard-drinking Scandinavians. Wealthier Finns take an 18-minute helicopter flights from Helsinki.

Allan Alakula, Tallinn City Office's director of public relations, says: "Tallinners are used to masses of Finns coming for cheap alcohol, and stagging Brits do not fall far from those lines of behaviour. We consider that Brits on stag weekends are for us something temporary, and [they will] soon discover other new destinations, as they have already around the continent."

The view from the Estonian embassy in London is more blunt. "We are aware of the visits to Tallinn of the stag parties that are being organised in the UK... We do not promote or encourage these types of visits in any way," a spokesman says. "Some quality hotels already have measures against stag parties in place, and if the nuisance would increase, one would expect other hotels and venues to follow suit."

Jason Barry, a British expatriate, is a board member of a reputable tourism company based in Tallinn, Footprint Travel. Although the firm specialises in business-to-business trips, study tours and sports tourism, Footprint started to organise a few stag trips to Tallinn two years ago. Barry is highly critical of what he calls "low-expectation" travel. "How Brits behave depends on the level of expectation they have - and that depends on the company they've booked their trip through," he says. "If they come here thinking it's an Amsterdam or a Prague they'll get frustrated. I really do believe that certain firms should change their approach. These companies must have seen the effect of this kind of tourism in other parts or Europe."

But even though there haven't been any problems with stag groups coming through Footprint, the company is now on the verge of pulling out of the stag-party market. "If the approach of these other companies doesn't improve we'll have no choice but to shut down our operation in relation to stags, because, as one of the most visible tourism companies in Tallinn, we will get the blame," he says.

Behind the scenes, the city authorities have already asked the police to crack down on noisy Brits. Kalle Klandorf is one of Tallinn's most senior police officers and has years of experience dealing with foreign trouble-makers: he was director of a special unit set up during the Soviet years to deal with crimes against foreigners. He emphasises that Brits have been overwhelmingly well-behaved, but says "the city authorities have asked us to deal with Brits making noise on the streets. Until now we've taken a liberal standpoint - we haven't intervened when Brits have been noisy." He adds: "We'd like people to come here and behave well. British tourism companies might try to attract people here who are wealthier and interested in other things apart from drinking."

No doubt police chiefs in Prague once had strikingly similar thoughts.

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