Good riddance: Latvia casts off Britain's stags

Industry targets 'a different kind of tourist'

Shaun Walker
Thursday 04 June 2009 00:00 BST

On a hot summer's day in the Latvian capital, the only tourists sitting at the outdoor cafés in the main square of Riga's pretty Old Town are a few elderly couples who have disembarked their cruise ship for the day and are sipping cappuccinos. It's a far cry from the scene just a year ago, when the same cafés were packed with British men dressed as nuns or sporting Borat "mankinis" while downing cheap pints of local beer.

When the low-cost carrier Ryanair began flying to Riga four years ago, the pleasant Baltic city quickly became one of the top destinations for stag nights, with marauding bands of young British men descending on the city to take in its cheap alcohol and strip clubs.

But now, Riga's status as the stag capital of Europe is over. The financial crisis has combined with ill feeling on both sides to end the love affair between British men and the Latvian capital.

With rising air fares, fewer Britons are able to justify splashing out on a foreign stag trip but not many Latvians are mourning the loss.

Latvia has been hit worse than almost any other EU country by the financial crisis and its economy is expected to shrink by more than 15 per cent this year. But even as the country finds itself in desperate need of revenue, there is no desire to see the return of stag parties en masse. Articles in Latvian newspapers are thankful that the "British threat" has receded, and focus on a drive to increase cultural tourism instead.

"People here are definitely fed up with the stag parties," says Ojars Kalnins, the director of the Latvian Institute, a think-tank linked to the country's Foreign Ministry.

"There are far fewer of them now. They tend to migrate from city to city – they destroy one place and then move on to the next "hotspot". They came to Riga because there were cheap airfares, alcohol, tobacco and women. It's sad because Latvia has so much more to offer. We're hoping to attract a different kind of tourist in the future."

A host of companies still advertise organised stag tours to Riga, offering pub crawls, strip clubs and even a limousine filled with strippers to pick groups up from the airport.

But British visitors complain that many venues set out to rip people off, while dozens of angry Britons on the forums at complain that attractive women who approached them in bars turned out to be prostitutes or thieves.

The in-flight magazine of Air Baltic, Latvia's national carrier, takes the unusual step of providing new arrivals in the country with a "blacklist" of venues in Riga that are known to rip off tourists and a series of tips on how to avoid falling victim to scams.

The actions of con artists, writes the airline's chief executive Bertolt Flick, should not be allowed to "frighten off foreigners". He complains that the Latvian authorities are doing little to combat the city's problems.

There is a feeling among many Latvians, however, that the stag parties are simply getting the treatment they deserve. Matters came to a head last month when local media reported that a British tourist in the Latvian capital had got into a fight with security guards at a club when presented with an extortionate bill for drinks. The British man had to be taken to hospital but not before breaking the jaw and biting off the ear of the Latvian bouncer.

Some restaurants and bars in Riga have started displaying signs in English stating that stag parties are not welcome and few ordinary Latvians have anything good to say about their run-ins with British revellers.

"I always dreamed of going to England and I imagined that Englishmen would all be real gentlemen, like Sherlock Holmes," said Marika, 21, a student from Riga. "Then, they started coming to my city and I saw that they are little more than animals."

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