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  Europe
Wild weekend
Latvia Prepares for a Tourist Invasion
By Jonathan Charles
The tourists have started arriving at this new EU destination

Low-cost airlines in Europe are fuelling a tourist boom, but as Latvia is now finding, there is a price to pay for a slice of this lucrative cake.

For decades during the Cold War, Latvia was prepared for an invasion from the West.

Nuclear bunkers set deep in the ground, litter the capital, Riga.

As an outpost of the Soviet Union, Latvia felt vulnerable, but 14 years on from the collapse of communism, it is facing an invasion from the West of a different kind, one which also poses a threat to its culture and natural beauty.

Latvia - which joined the European Union last year - is one of many countries now working out how to deal with an influx of tourists.

Cheap flights

Tourism is now the world's biggest single industry, the steelworks and coal mines of our age.

This year people will take more holidays than ever before.

In Europe, the low-cost airlines are serving more destinations with cheaper fares, fuelling the growth in tourism.

Latvia wants the money and the jobs but it is also considering how to cope with the downside.

The Director of Riga's tourism office, Sandra Inkena, is worried about some of the projections for growth.

"At the moment we have about one and a half million tourists a year visiting Riga, but the vice mayor says he wants that to increase to 10 million visitors a year," she said.

"I don't think we could cope with that. I personally wouldn't like to see Riga so overcrowded."

Wild weekends

A Latian architecture

In one of the old Cold War nuclear bunkers are some of the new wave of visitors. The bunker is now a shooting range, popular with British stag parties who want to fire off a pistol or a Kalashnikov assault rifle, as part of a fun-packed trip to Riga.

The stag groups are typical of those taking advantage of cheap flights. One British man in his 20s said:

"We're here for the cheap beer and the girls. We're here for fun."

Amidst the rattle of gunfire and the whoops from people having a good time, the organiser of the stag weekends, Linas from Active Holidays, said his company alone now has around 10 groups coming to Riga every weekend, about 100 people in total.

A year ago, there were very few.

"It's been influenced by cheap flights which have just started to fly here," Linas said.

"Riga was undiscovered for a long time, but we have a lot to offer including cheap beer and nice women. There are lots of things to do here."

Boisterous presence

Convent Courtyard with St. Peter's Church in Riga, Latvia

It is impossible to know exactly how many stag groups there are visiting Latvia, nor what percentage of the tourist numbers they make up, but they certainly make their boisterous presence felt on the streets and in the clubs.

On a Friday night in Riga, the impact the stag groups are having on Riga is starting to become evident.

Music blares from bar after bar in the old town, and intermingled with the sound is the noise of groups of British men in their 20s having a good time.

They tend to drink a lot and get drunk quickly, very different behaviour to the measured approach of Latvians.

Jerry O'Brien owns an Irish bar in Riga. He thinks the stag parties pose risks although there has been no real problem yet. But their numbers will only rise.

He fears violence. "We're going to have to review our security. You know what they're like when they've been drinking. They're on a mission to get drunk," he said.

"Latvians don't go to pubs to get drunk. It's a society problem in Britain and Ireland. It's not a Riga problem. It's our problem, and it's coming to Riga."

'Horror stories'

A Latian architecture

The stag parties certainly aren't coming to Riga for culture, and they give little impression of caring about which country they're visiting. It could be anywhere as long as the alcohol is cheaper than in Britain.

Some in Riga now worry about the damage their city might suffer as a result of an association with stag weekends.

Ojars Kalnins, Director of the Latvian Institute, a state-funded body which promotes the country, said he does not want Riga to be associated with sex tourism.

Mr Kalnins said he hopes people will visit Latvia for other reasons:

"We've been getting a lot of horror stories and there is a little bit of concern," he said.

"There is the more positive feeling about the general increase in tourism. I want people to come here for the culture, the music and the history."

Mr Kalnins admitted though, that right now Latvia is only interested in getting as many people as possible to visit and to spend their money.

Rowdy place

Economic growth depends on pulling the tourists in. Mr Kalnins said the country will worry about the consequences later:

"We've only had this increase in tourism for the past year, so it's all new to us.

"Perhaps later we will work out what type of tourists are coming and whether we can influence that in any way."

The danger of worrying later though is that it will be too late, the damage will be done. If other tourists start thinking Riga is a rowdy place, they won't visit.

Tourism is too important economically to treat as a short-term income. Every city wants a share of the growth.

In Europe alone, over the next 20 years, the number of tourists is expected to double. For governments, the issue will be how best to manage that growth.

As cities like Riga are discovering, it is not easy, but unless they start to plan properly they could be overwhelmed.



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