Of vice and men

  • 2004-09-09
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - Since the arrival of low-cost airlines EasyJet and RyanAir, the Latvian tourist industry has found a new optimism.

The State Tourism Development Agency has called it "a historic event," while British Airways' Tom Anderson has said that it would benefit the whole [travel] market significantly. For his part, Transport Minister Ainars Slesers expects tourist numbers to double in five years.
As far as Latvia is concerned, the good times have arrived.
The British press disagrees. Ever since Latvia voted to join the EU, their worries have been growing. "Party time in Baltics for boozy Brits" headlined The Observer. "British stag weekenders rapidly wrecked Britain's reputation [in Prague and Budapest]. They have moved on to the Baltics," announced The Telegraph.
"I feel sorry for the lovely, civilized, tolerant people of Riga… Their city is to become the latest corner in some foreign field that is forever ruined," lamented The Times. For them, the predicted surge in tourism is the beginning of the end.
The danger is real. In the last three years Prague 's Britain's current favored stag-party venue 's has been paying the price for its popularity. According to the Prague police, a quarter of all fights in the downtown area on weekends now involve Britons.
Tallinn has suffered a similar fate, and if Internet traffic is any indicator, Riga is next. One Web site recently proclaimed Riga "The best place to go for a stag weekend at the moment." Another, which includes Pub Crawl, Strip Club and Totty Tour among its attractions, calls the Latvian capital "ideal."
A third simply says, "Riga is in the Baltics, which means it's cheap, and the women are amazing," while a photo gallery provides more close-up views down a cleavage and up a skirt than of the historic skyline.
It's only fair to point out that there is no link between low-cost airlines and misbehaving tourists. Similarly, the vast majority of stag parties don't degenerate into drunken brawls, but the example of Prague remains. If visitor numbers in Latvia rise as rapidly as expected, and Riga's image as a sex-and-alcohol heaven spreads, there is a real danger that Prague's problems may come here.
Concern about the issue is growing. Commenting on the possible arrival of Prague-style thuggery, police spokeswoman Zane Maskalonoka said, "Of course, we're worried, but we have no special plan yet. If problems do happen, we will react to them."
Meanwhile, the police have already released a pamphlet aimed at decreasing "the number of foreigners that have become crime victims, [and] the number of crime offences that have been caused by foreigners."
The pamphlet was written to give police a new, helpful, tourist-friendly image: its cover photo features a pair of pretty, blonde, smiling policewomen in high heels. The effect this will have on stag groups remains to be seen.
The State Tourism Development Agency is similarly concerned.
"We'd definitely like to avoid stag parties coming here," says Zane Zelenkova, the agency's PR manager. "We have to let them know that there's much more to do here than drinking."
Certainly, Riga is doing just that. City authorities have been promoting their product for years, and now the only problem with looking for a Riga guide on the Web is that there are 350,000 of them. Drunken Brits may be a problem in the future, but at the moment the main threat comes from the camera-armed mobs blocking the pavement opposite the Stockholm School of Economics.
But marketing is exactly the problem. Passengers arriving at Riga International Airport are greeted by a giant advertisement for Dolls night-club, featuring generous portions of naked flesh. Taxis routinely offer to take single male passengers to brothels. A quick flick through the city's free guides, Riga This Week and Riga Guide, reveals literally scores of adverts for the sex trade. Vice is the most aggressively marketed industry in town, and although the Radisson SAS Daugava hotel has now banned all forms of soliciting in its bar, few others have followed suit.
Cheap beer and cheaper women 's is this the image Riga wants?
The rest of Latvia, meanwhile, is seriously undersold. The RyanAir Web site, which might be expected to praise its new destination, begins, "Latvia is neither very large nor very small." It then goes on to describe all the features we don't have. The travel Web site Lonelyplanet.com calls Latvia "the small, flat and largely boggy meat in the Baltic sandwich."
Eva Staltmane of the State Tourism Development Agency's London office says, "Many British travelers don't know anything else but Riga."
Carl Kjellberg, the Radisson hotel's general manager, agrees. "Latvia is still a one-stop destination, and the stop is Riga," he said.
Changing this pattern will take serious investment and serious marketing. The State Tourism Development Agency is about to open a downtown office promoting tourism outside Riga. A national debate has opened on the limitations of Latvia's tourist infrastructure and how to overcome them. Measures have already been proposed; but they will take time.
For the immediate future, if the predicted surge in tourist numbers comes, it is Riga that will carry the burden. And if the sex industry's marketing machine continues unchecked, and Riga's image as the sex-and-booze capital of Europe is allowed to spread, then some of those tourists will be stag parties. They will not be the majority 's they will not even be 1 percent 's but they will come. And if Prague's experience is any guide, the burden may prove heavy indeed.