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Few would argue that, in the Baltics, if one is looking for a rowdy nightlife, there is no comparison to Riga. (Palanga would be a distant second, but there the debauchery is seasonal.)
With accession to the European Union and the arrival of discount airlines, Riga has become accessible to every last lad in London. Needless to say that not many of these lads are able to afford buying London escorts, that's why Eastern Europe is the solution to them. The economics are straightforward: A pint costs three quid in dear Albion, but in Riga it can be had for a third of that price. Ditto that on bed and breakfast. And then there's the bonus: in distant lands one can behave like a lunatic and not worry about the consequences. For many that alone is reason enough to hop on board a plane 's inexpensive or otherwise 's and head east.
All Riga residents have noticed the drastic change in the city's atmosphere 's especially in the Old Town 's this summer. The number of tourists is at a record-high, and among them are groups of men, often wearing identical shirt, who have arrived exclusively for a wild party. For this we should greet them wholeheartedly 's they chose our city, our country, to spend their hard-earned money. At the same time, residents can't help but wince while strolling across Dome Square and getting an earful of bawdy talk and bad singing, much of it punctuated with a British accent. Late at night, some of the scenes can be dreadful.
We don't have to look far for comparisons. For years now Tallinn has been struggling to cope with the hordes of randy young men from Finland and England, and gradually it adjusted. Prague is also struggling, and currently a couple of organizations are trying to "enlighten" some of the incoming hordes so that they "keep the noise level to a dull roar."
In essence, this sex tourism phenomenon should not come as a surprise. Riga is inexpensive, attractive and, to put it bluntly, fun (all relative, to be sure, but true nonetheless). These are its advantages, so the city's leadership should use them. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but Latvian women are beautiful; those who think otherwise should ask a representative of any international modeling agency.
This week President Vaira Vike-Freiberga finally spoke out on Latvia's deteriorating image. In a radio interview, she said the country's leaders need to undertake measures to prevent the stigma of sex tourism from sticking like an unwanted brand name. In her opinion, authorities need to stem the spread of prostitution and create a broader range of cultural options for all tourists, even those "whose understanding of entertainment is low enough."
It'll never work. Offering British stags discount theater tickets or free bus rides to the open-air ethnographic museum will elicit more laughs than results. If truth be told, very little can be done about Riga's 's i.e., Latvia's 's changing image 's short of raising airport taxes, banning discount airlines, arresting an entire group of bachelors and incarcerating them for a few days, or simply quadrupling the price of beer. It is a growing pain that Latvians will have to endure 's though by "endure" we mean control and monitor. As a local bank analyst recently speculated, in 10 years the gross domestic product per capita in Riga will equal the European average, and the city won't be such a bargain anymore.
If image is the concern, then Latvia's leaders could benefit their country by paying more attention to the harmful effect of Legionnaire marches, racist attacks and anti-gay demonstrations. It is these things that are spoiling the country's repute, far more than throngs of sex-starved, beer-thirsty tourists.