By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
The Latvian capital Riga is the latest place to consider cracking down on groups of British revellers, but how did the institution of the stag night get so out of hand?
Fifty years ago your stag night probably involved your dad, brothers and the odd mate enjoying a couple of pints of mild in the local.
How times have changed. The stag night is like the red squirrel, a much-loved and respectable native creature giving way to an invasion of bigger exotic varieties, the stag weekend and even week.
This is the era of "stagflation", with the average stag weekend costing £365 a head, according to a 2004 Morgan Stanley survey. Stags and hens head as far away as Cancun and Las Vegas in search of a unique experience. Those who stay in the UK are no more frugal. Nick Webb, of domestic stag organiser Maximise, says he's catered for one party who brought their own helicopter and needed a helipad laid on in Nottingham.
It's easy to see why many won't settle for the local Dog and Duck when the fleshpots of Barcelona and Amsterdam await, and paintball's appeal wanes compared with firing Glocks and AK-47s behind the old Iron Curtain.
While disposable income in Britain is increasing, the real story of the rise of the foreign stag weekend is the rise of the budget airline. As Ryanair, Easyjet, BMIbaby and the rest spread their tentacles east, so the stag parties follow, each year finding a new destination for Bacchanalian excess.
The key ingredients are budget flights, cheap accommodation, cheap alcohol and strangely enough, a well-preserved historic centre. When it comes to booze-fuelled mayhem, it seems that Brits feel most at home amongst medieval buildings, getting their kicks in Prague, Budapest, Riga and Tallinn.
Historic beauty spot
It's this zeroing in on the beautiful old towns of a dozen eastern European capitals that raises hackles.
Elizabeth Celms, editor-in-chief of the Baltic Times in Riga, says: "It is really disappointing. The old town is historic and beautiful. It used to be very quiet, you used to walk through and hear a flautist or somebody playing the violin, now it's absolutely packed with strip clubs and huge groups of stags, loud and obnoxious, hailing strippers, falling over."
Riga has faced invaders before, but rarely dressed as Elvis
That's the second issue for the burghers of these stag destinations - many of their British revellers want to stumble from strip club to strip club. More open every month, and behind the scenes, there is prostitution.
Oskars Kastens, an MP with the Latvia First Party, a Christian Democrat-type grouping, is among those who believe that some form of action needs to be taken against the British invasion.
"It is a wave which is going over Eastern Europe. First it was Budapest and Prague, now it is coming to the Baltic countries.
"We are happy that Riga has become a destination for British tourists, but we are a bit unhappy about people coming to Riga for stag parties."
In the old town, churches are surrounded by the flashing neon of strip bars. And behind the scenes lurks prostitution. In the era of people-trafficking and a sex trade that crosses borders, prostitutes are arriving from other countries.
Mr Kastens wants this aspect of the stag boom tackled as a priority. "In Scandinavia it is against the law to buy the service of prostitutes. There is already some mood in the government and Parliament to make this a kind of criminal offence. I think we need discussion on this."
Pros and cons
But for all the offended residents, churchmen, and politicians, there's also a strange kind of ambivalence towards the drunken invaders.
For stag parties bring money, and lots of it - valuable hard currency to native tourist industries.
Ms Celms says: "There is more and more discussion about it. The Riga mayor has said some contradictory things, and he doesn't do anything against the opening of new strip clubs."
An eye for the local scenery
Some discussion revolves around shifting the strip bars and brothels to a new red light district way away from the old town, rather than stamping out the stag trade completely.
Ian Donegan has run Prague Tour Services for nine years, and says there has been no legal move over that time that has really disrupted the stag trade.
His company, which handles 500 groups of 10-15 people a year, has few complaints from local people and the police. He says that stag operators do not take their groups to brothels, although they do point them in the direction of lap dancing clubs, which are often frequented by prostitutes.
Even Mr Kastens stresses the need for consultation before any rash action is taken in Riga: "We also have to change the image of the country as a destination not for 'savages from Liverpool', but for things like great art."
No proud Baltic capital wants its appeal reduced to, as one website puts it, "medieval lesbian stripper show and meal". And the British invasion is prompting the arrival of stag revellers from elsewhere.
"Many of them are British because of the Ryanair flights, but some are Irish, there are Finns. It's not just a stereotype of the English, the Scandinavians can almost be worse," Ms Celms says.
But those who head east for stag events say the vast majority behave themselves and appreciate the local culture. In a Mintel survey in 2003, only 10% of respondents agreed that stag parties harm the destination cities.
One British stag website speaks for many when it praises Riga as "fairly unspoilt", and yet suggests revellers may wake from a drunken stupor on a local monument.
Richard Billington, 26, was the stag on a trip to Krakow at the weekend and attended another in Prague three weeks earlier. He says good behaviour is the norm.
"During the days there is an old town square in the middle of the city which has got bars all the way around. We were sitting in the bars drinking and keeping an eye on the local talent. The eastern European ladies are lovely.
"Everyone was really friendly even to a group of English blokes. You know not to be overly stupid, especially in the clubs."
His party visited both of Krakow's strip clubs, but he says nothing could have been further from the party's mind than prostitution on either trip.
Whatever the behaviour of the respectable majority, Mr Kastens is still worried.
"Many people are not happy that the old town is becoming a brothel. If the boom continues, all the city will be a kind of brothel."
Here is a selection of your comments.
Why should any woman seriously consider getting married any more, if before they get to the altar it is the norm for their groom to have cheated on them with lapdancers and prostitutes in a foreign brothel, with an encouraging nod and wink from the best man and all of their mates?
Laura Nere, Manchester, England
Thank God I married a muslim!
Hope Full, birmingham
As a Latvian living in the UK, I am amused but disconcerted by the attention that the British press devotes to the epiphenomenon of stag groups in New Europe. Articles like this one distort out of all proportion the significance of a minority of trashy tourists and those who cater for them, ignoring entirely the broader picture of an economically thriving region that enjoys large inflows of decent visitors.
As anyone who has seen a British city at night will know, a certain stratum of this island's population rather enjoys frequently overindulging in alcohol and behaving obnoxiously. With the advent of low fares airlines, it is only natural that some of these people have found their way to other countries with lower priced drinks and other services. Regrettable though their patterns of consumption may be, it is not clear to me why they are any worse when practiced in Riga and Prague rather than Liverpool or Manchester. It is nothing short of ridiculous to hail this internationalization of young men behaving badly as a 'British invasion' or 'another form of imperialism'.
Arthur Kadish, Oxford, UK
I see no point in all this hen/stag night nonsense. As Friedrich Nietzsche said "The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness".
Boyfriend's mate came back from stag do in Latvia with an STI. Didn't tell fiancee for two years after wedding - too late to prevent her becoming sterile. If you want to sleep with prostitutes then don't bother getting married, you're not going to be a decent husband anyway.
B Cooke, London
Many men reading this will have slept with prostitutes on stag do's. I'm sure you convinced yourself that "it's their choice", but for many of the women it is not. They are controlled by brutal gangs and can't refuse you. Sex without consent? I believe it's called rape.
So Cailean from Glasgow blames capitalism for the economic woes of Eastern European countries? While the system obviously has many faults, might not the (relative) poverty endemic to these countries have more to do with the fact that they laboured under communism for many decades? I agree it's a shame that some British tourists let themselves down abroad, but the commercialisation of holiday destinations is ineviable if they want wealthy foreigners to come there and spend money.
I had the misfortune to attend a stag weekend in Newcastle. Truly the worst weekend of my life and one I paid £500 for. It has made me think about my own future arrangements and when my turn comes I won't be having a stag weekend. I believe it is wrong to expect friends to pay out large sums of money and use holiday for such weekends when soon after they'll have to pay out again and take more holiday for the wedding itself.
Justin Smith, Cambridge, UK
My boyfriend was invited to a stag weekend in Bristol and i wasn't keen as it was a crowd of "macho" soldiers and policemen going. I have two brothers and know all about stag weekends and what goes on now - in all walks of life - not just the chav/football hooligan stereotype. When he found out what the intention was he told the best man to count him out. We're supposed to go and stand in church and watch this 'man' marry the poor girl when i know that he and his fellow 'stags' have been up to? We decided not to go to the wedding either - it makes me sick. And women don't be fooled into thinking that lap dancing clubs are nothing more - i've worked in sales as the only woman in the office and even in respctable Bournemouth - my colleagues went to a club and paid for sex (behind curtained off area so their mates could hear) that they could brag about at conference the next day. Why do they get married ??
I think Mr Kastens maybe forgets that although Liverpool does have savages, just as does Manchester, Glasgow and London. There are no more than what he would find on his own front door step. I feel sad for a man who makes assumptions of area without visiting places himself. I appreciate his town is full of historic importance and sites, however if he took time to see where people come from, he would also notice that Liverpool is full of beautiful sites and history also.
Personally I would love to visit Riga and wouuld track down Mr Kastens and insist that he returns the favour allowing me to show him around Liverpool, after which I would expect an apology and a retraction of his very narrow minded comment. Muppet!
CF, Liverpool, UK
Why must people complain about this sort of thing? to have a stag or hen night is the last chance to spend time with friends you have known for a long time before you become married. marriage may be a chore and its true most end in divorce but to say that a wild stag night in another country would lead to divorce is foolish. and to argue that the stag night is disrespectful of women, well that is a generalisation.... and even if it does who really cares enough to stop it... all those complaining why dont you try to solve the problems like the human traffiking rather than just moaning about it.
Get over yourself's anyone who wants to wax lyrical about culture, old streets, museums et al. Lads hit these places for brothels and strip clubs, anything else such as gun firing is an addendum to the main event. The cities are beautiful and given longer in the area, men may want to integrate more. As it is, it's a short term hedonistic trip, and the Eastern Bloc does it very cheaply indeed. Laura from Sheffield should stop flying the women's lib flag, these girls are earning well over their national average and have chosen to enter the profession and exploit drunken revellers. Why get nothing in Sheffield when you can fill your boots in Europe for half the price?! Simple. Men will be men......Next stop the newly reformed Iraq!!!!
A man who decides that he would like to get married is making a commitment to be faithful to his wife alone. If he is truely deeply in love with his fiance, he would not need to seek satisfaction from any other woman, especially shortly before his wedding day. Starting a marriage with the secret of having been with a prostitute or lusting after a lap dancer or stripper could have devastating consequences. If you value your partner and are looking for a lasting and happy future, think before you act carelessly. Just because drunken, deceiving behaviour is so common, it does not make it acceptable.
Savages from Liverpool - from the city that is willing to put a strip show next to a church
Foreigners have long forgotten the Bowla Hat and pot of tea image of Britain. A recent trip to Petra in Jordan showed me how we are now seen aborad - 60-something Jordanian men doing cockney impressions of "over 'ere love, it's ASDA price" as we walk down The Siq, and a local drinks vendor "cheep waaa'ta, nah need for a pint n a fight". Pick the bones out of that.
As an American travelling in Europe a few years ago (I first studied abroad in the UK and then did a large exploration of Western an Eastern Europe with a mate) I found the English stag parties a refreshing site, one being that at least these former communist strongholds would be well-versed in English, and the other being that most people took me for English; and not an imperialist war mongering American!
I've just come back from a stag do in Le Mans - having spent four nights in a tent, 8 hours in a queue for the toilet, 8 hours in the queue for the showers and the "entertainment" being the 24 hour roar of cars, I wish I'd have read this first...!
Dave, Basingstoke, UK
My wifes Lithuanian and Iv'e been to Vilnius loads of time. So far no real stag party invasion as the flights are still expensive relatively speaking. But you also have to understand the culture difference, lap dancing for example, these girls take no prisoners, they are used to Russian heavies as guests, they have a low opinion of English guys looking for cheap sex, they will take your money and spit you out the other side, job done.. actually most of the girls are from Russian/Ukraine, Lithuanian girls consider lap dancing to be on a par with prostitution.
I object to the 'savages from Liverpool' comment greatly - there are large numbers of people who travel from Liverpool who are not savages. People from Liverpool often travel to escape the hen and stag parties that descend on the town. Problems of such can be found everywhere where people go on stag and hen nights, in liverpool that can mean large groups of young men from other area's coming to the town and treating every woman they see like a prostitute...
An historic old town and a stag/hen quarter don't have to be the same part of town or mutually exclusive.
Simply establish your' entertainment' district then control, enforce and exploit it through licensing and policing. It works in Amsterdam!
Steve, Doncaster UK
Further to Greg in London's comment "it's a celebration of brotherhood that one of them has found a mate who he hopes to be with for the rest of his life! Why not celebrate this huge step in life however you want" - I completely disagree. Celebrate and have a wonderful time, but don't do it at the expense of respect for women - both the "mate who he hopes to be with for the rest of his life", or the woman that he is paying for.
And the funniest thing is, that despite the fact that we know it goes on, I bet not one married woman in this country doubts the fact that her partner was completely well behaved on the stag do. What honesty and integrity to enter into a marriage with!
Hannah B, Leicester
Like David Smith from London, I fly between beteen Spain and England very frequently and see stag trips on every flight. In my experience they are generally well behaved youngsters having fun. Don't knock them. Me, I'm 65 and I envy them!
Mike Mitchell, Formentera del Segura, Spain
I first went on a Stag Party to Tallin some 8 years ago. There were strip clubs, lap dancing and bars then, but we were the only Stag party. The proliferation of these is because of demand, but also a fair amount of greed - for hard cash. Its up to the local/town councils to manage the proliferation of the seedier side of their towns. Remove these and you'll lose the Stag parties, buta also the money. The exploitation point is rubbish - we also went to Spain, Dublin, Blackpool on other parties - were we exploiting them too ?
I was in Wroclaw at the beginning of May. We flew on a Ryanair flight from East midlands with two stag parties onboard. As the centre of Wroclaw was so small we often bumped into the parties. During the day they were sightseeing and in the evening they were harmlessly enjoying themselves. Just like in the UK a small minority of yobs give the majority of people a bad name, we saw no indication of the stags misbehaving, they were even up earlier than us on the sunday morning!
Lucy, Sheffield, UK
It is really sad that people in this country have such a pessimistic view of married life that they feel the need to go to such extremes on the hen or stag do. It also suggests that these same people will live a rather miserable married life that will almost certainly end in divorce. If you really think married life is going to end all your fun, then you're probably marrying the wrong person and for the wrong reasons.
I don't really understand the concept and necessity of a hen or stag night/weekend/week to be honest! And why does it have to be a wild time, full of booze, hookers, lap dancing, strip clubs etc? No one is being forced to getting married nowadays and no one stops going out with their mates and getting drunk etc after they¿ve gotten married, so why all the fuss and waste of money? And how about all the incidents of grooms or brides-to-be waking up next to someone other than their future spouses the day after the wild stag or hen party???!!!
Did I miss something? All of this trouble is caused by the Stag parties? I think the author of this article forgot to mention about equally bad, if not worse, Hen parties.
Laura, are you suggesting that being poor absolves people from all moral responsibility? Or does it simply further your agenda always to portray women as victims and men as guilty?
DJC, Sutton Coldfield, UK
I think Berties' comments regarding 'the wives and grilfriends' demonstrate the complete lack of respect for women a lot of these 'stags' have. Obviously it doesn't matter to them that women are forced into sex work by economic necessity and abuse, and I doubt it would even cross their mind whether or not the 'hookers' they use are in a position to give consent. I pity the women of Latvia and every other city that plays host to these selfish, arrogant men.
Im due for my stag do next year and already my mates seem to have ideas of taking me to Latvia with promises such as "What happens there, stays there". If I do go abroad I do not intend to use my distance from home as an excuse for bad behaviour.
As an expat in Tallinn I can say that the British here hate the stags. They don't seem to appreciate that people live here, and there is a culture and people in this country worthy of respect. Their behaviour has also reflected very badly on those of us who live here - i had to learn how to say 'i live here!' in Estonian, as local girls now walk away if they hear you speak English.
The problem is that the locals see stags as 'walking cash machines' so they tolerate it, and there is a long history of the Finns coming over to Tallinn for drink and sex so they are already used to it. But it is sad as these are beautiful, cultural cities worthy of far better tourists, if they chose to project that image to tourists.
T, Tallinn, Estonia
I feel sad when beautiful, quiet places are ruined; but the governments grant the landing rights and the people vote in the governments.
Jon, Manchester, UK
Been Living in the Czech Republic for 5 years. Everytime I visit Prague, i am amazed by the number of well behaved, good humoured,stag parties going on. I recentlyspent some time with mates from Scotland on their stag night and in the 3 days they were here, there wasn't one bit of trouble and i counted at least 10 different groups around all having fun.
Norrie, Vsetin. Czech Republic
They need the money from tourism, so they have little choice but to acquiesce to our whims. Isn't this just another form of imperialism?
Gillian Hawkes, Norwich
As far as I can tell most guys go to these places because of strip clubs, cheap drinks and hookers. It seems to be the norm for practically every member of stag party groups to use the services of prostitutes. I can promise that no-one I know of has come back from a stag party with photos of historical buildings, just stories of nights out, and the women they paid for.
A group of us went to Budapest (not a stag night, just a lads weekend away), and after a few beers ended up in a lap dancing bar. However, after having 3 beers (in total, not each), we were presented with a bill for close to £500 for the drinks. When we queried this, a whole group of bouncers appeared, and threatened violence unless we paid up. One lad was frog marched to a cash point to extract the money, whilst the rest of us were held hostage.
Don't let these cities kid you that they are the innocent victim in all this.
Paul Weller (no, not that one), Rochdale
I am going on a stag do in July and the main focus will be the horse races, we are all going as Reservoir Dogs... which I admit came across as cheesy to me but it isn't my stag do and I haven't arranged it, I'm simply happy to be going. I don't see anything wrong with people wearing matching T shirts etc as long as they behave abroad, it's a celebration of brotherhood that one of them has found a mate who he hopes to be with for the rest of his life! Why not celebrate this huge step in life however you want.
I always feel totally embarrassed whenever I'm in Stansted airport and see a gang of 20- to 40-something British guys all decked out in their matching "Sean/Joe/Tony's stag party Ljubljana/Riga/Vilnius 2006" T-shirts. These people, like the football hooligans before them, are helping to cement our reputation abroad as a nation of idiot drunkards. Have your stag party by all means but please do it inside the UK where you won't do any damage to our image in other countries. At the very least, please stop wearing the matching T-shirts.
I don't understand Richard's problem - every stag weekend I've been on (Vegas, Tenerife, Blackpool, etc.) has been a well mannered group of guys celebrating their friends past and future. Yes we wear matching t-shirts and drink, but so what? What harm is that we are having fun and letting others know that we are on a stag do, as long as we're polite and well mannered? I think you need to get a life and some friends, then maybe you'll get to go on a stag week/day/weekend and see that not all people that go on these things and like to drink are 'thugs' or 'idiots'. Stop pre-judging and labeling people that you clearly know nothing about.
I went to Prague for mine and thoroughly enjoyed. Not one of our party even spoke to a policeman, never mine got into trouble with one. We were pleasant and polite to the hotel staff, left our rooms in the condition we found them, and still found time to do the usual stag things. Don't tar us all with that hooligan brush.
Surely this is just more ecomonic abuse from west towards the east - "you will become our playground, your people will come west and become our servants doing jobs we don't want to do". I think this article makes light of the poverty of these countries and their noble people. Welcome to Capitalism!
Cailean, Glasgow, UK
I would not worry so much about UK's image; i think the Iraq war took care of that for good.
"We were sitting in the bars drinking and keeping an eye on the local talent. The eastern European ladies are lovely."
It's amazing how much easier it is to objectify and leer at women when far from home. But that shouldn't really make it any more acceptable, should it?
The main reason these places are so attractive to stag parties is the price to get there and with the former eastern block countries, the price once you are there. I recently had my stag weekend in Barcelona, we paid £40 to get there and booked accomodation and stag night entertainment through a particular company for £150. There was no matching t-shirts, just a group of mates enjoying what a foreign city has to offer, and i'd recommend it to anyone. Barcelona or Blackpool, its Barca every time for me.
Matt Stephens, Birmingham
We have just returned from a trip to Budapest and had a fantastic time. The only issue we have had is with the girlfriends and wives who were less than sympathetic to the evening exploits. The term "what goes on tour stays on tour" has lost some of its meaning since bars started to display pictures on their web sites!
The problem isn't just stag/hen weekends, they fall under the larger banner of 'brits abroad' the most rude and obnoxious parade of union jack short wearing morons anyone will ever encounter.
I went to Prague 2 years ago. Great place, great people, great weather. Then sitting in a nice cafe near the Old Town Square it all changed. Looking round the next 2 tables had suddenly been swamped by a stag party. Football tops, shouting and pasty skin all round. In less than five minutes they'd annoyed the locals, hassled the lovely waitress and you couldn't hear yourself think. Looking round everyone was cringing and giving them evil looks. Only one thing for it...I hid my English fags and ordered my next drink in German. Meeting my fellow man abroad en masse is never a good thing.
I take the comment about Liverpool as a personal affront. To label us as savages is something of a generalisation. Granted there are savages in Liverpool - and some of them are good friends of mine - but on the whole we are decent, hard working people. Would a city full of savages be chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2008?
Kieron, Liverpool UK
At the end of the day, these countries allow landing rights to the budget airlines, so what really do they expect? Happy to take our cash to feed the economy, but moan when a few idiots ruin it for everyone else...
I was in a group of, frankly more civilised, stag revellers who went to Riga last summer. We actually played a game of footy against a local team and did some go-karting. I take the points about the neon and the drunken groups. I don't like to see them anywhere. However, having gone out for an extra day to check out the real Riga, culture and sight-seeing, I have to say that "the historic beauty spot", the old town, is not all it's cracked up to be. We wandered around in less than an hour and is nowhere near as much of an attraction as, say, Prague or Budapest. I doubt people would visit if it were not for these cheap flights and stag parties.
Colin, London, England
Boyfriend and I spent last summer in the baltics, after visiting the harrowing museum of occupation in Riga detailing the suffering of the Latvians under the soviets and the nazis, executions, gulags, KGB and labour camps we exited to come face to face with a group of UK stags wearing soviet military peaked caps and wearing Engerland football shirts. Shame and revulsion. The poverty of the city is obvious and the begging OAPs, the strip clubs and the girls loitering outside are grinding and depressing, they are trying to survive a painful economic transition - they aren't involved for fun. Life is hard in Latvia. Beautiful city shame the stags don't realise it.
R, Cambridge, UK
"Savages from Liverpool"...has not Liverpool been awarded the honour European Capital of Culture in 2008? I should think Mr Kastens would do better to choose his cultural slurs more wisely, and deal with the problem at hand - his country's need for economic growth.
Lucie Barnes, Oxford
Stop moaning Latvia and enjoy your new found tourist boom! Personally, when I visited the place as part of a stag party I thought all the locals were really friendly, particularly the strippers and gun merchants.
I live in Riga and while it is true that there are a few gangs of noisy Brits wandering around most weekends it does not really spoil the place. I first cam eto live here over 10 years ago and since then the city has changed from a grey run down place to possibly the most beautiful capital in Europe. Don't be put off by talk of the stag parties, Riga really is worth visiting especially when you can focus enough to see the beauty of the place.
Steve, Riga, Latvia
MB, your appraisal is spot-on, the many countries visited by British Stag parties appreciate the hard cash that floods into their cities. The problems with prostitution are the local governments responsibility, many of whom are so corrupt that they benefit directly anyway.
FAO Richard, London. What are you talking about, I fly to Spain every week at have seen my fair share of Stag/hen parties going away and none appear to be 'Football Hooligans' destroying the British reputation, if anything the ones destroying our reputation are the elderly which I see always complaining about something at airports or abroad or the 'Tracksuit Family' 4 adults and a dozen uncontrolable kids. If countries did not want the stag/hen parties and the money they take along they could always ban them.
David Smith, London, UK
These things come in cycles. Now it's the Baltic cities, immediately it was Reykjavik, previously Dublin. For our fathers and grandfathers it was Paris, Lille, Berlin, Rome... except they did it with uniforms on. "Hordes of young men sweeping across Europe looking for beer and women." That's being going on for a thousand years!
Thanks for all the info on where to go, I'm off !
JH, London, but not for long...