Wish you weren't here

Updated Thursday, 13th August 2009
Is the trend for young British tourists to binge drink and behave badly abroad getting worse? Richard Skellington asks whether the Brits are the worst offenders, and what the Foreign Office are doing about it

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The facts appear all too depressingly familiar. The behaviour of Brits abroad used to be more of a national embarrassment during the silly season but now it is becoming more of an all year round problem.

At home we seem to binge drink all-year round, if we are to believe the more sensational reports of the tabloid red tops. Britain now has binge drinking etched throughout its national rock. Now our binge drinking culture – not simply confined to holidays, football matches, and stag and hen parties - has become an export industry as wave upon wave of British tourists head for the Mediterranean and the urban centres of old and new Europe opened up by low-price air fares. The British binge drinking culture has even reached Dubai where a surge in British arrests has been reported since 2007.

Somewhat the worse for wear

Newspaper headlines tackle the problem with gusto and relish!

  • 'Brits behaving badly: they came, they drank, they peed'
  • 'Brit teenagers are the binge-drinking champions of Europe'
  • 'Curse of the boozy Britons'
  • 'Arrests up among British travelling abroad'
  • 'Wish you weren‘t here, Greece tells tourists'

In late July this year the Foreign Office urged UK holidaymakers to curb their alcohol consumption and avoid the risks of travelling abroad. The campaign warned Brits that there was 'another side to paradise' and drew attention to the dangers they may encounter. For some it could be a night in the cells. For others it could mean hospital, or worse. This week, in Greece, a Greek woman was accused of setting fire to a British tourist after he allegedly pulled down his trousers in front of her. Drink less and you improve your prospects of not becoming a victim is the Foreign Office mantra.

I have friends who plan their holidays around those times when it is more likely that their historic cultural destination will not be invaded by drunken British tourists. I am always impressed on holiday in Italy, especially in Sardinia, how different cultures generate completely acceptable behaviour in young and old alike rather than the boorish British excess of rowdy drunkenness. Is it any wonder that our European neighbours are becoming increasingly more unwelcoming?

The Foreign Office campaign, aimed mainly at 18-30 holidaymakers, distributed leaflets and posters across the tourist hot spots of Europe, especially new destinations such as the Baltic States and Turkey, and the more familiar sun-seeking paradises of Spain and Greece.The leaflets urge holidaymakers to 'know their limits'. Flyers, beer mats and business cards reading ‘If you drink too much, things can get out of control’ have been handed out to British tourists on Greek islands as part of the campaign.

The Foreign Office has also funded English lessons for police officers in Greece, where 70 per cent of consulate cases involve British tourists who have got into difficulty, including in May this year, a group of men dressed in Nun habits who were arrested for baring their bottoms in Crete. According to Foreign Office data, 16 to 20-year olds represent a third of all Britons visiting Greece, but account for more than 70 per cent of Britain’s annual 800-900 consular cases there. Even tee-shirt companies have muscled in on the market.

Greece’s conservative government vowed to clean up resorts last year, saying much drink-related misconduct was due to profit-hungry bar owners supplying tourists with drinks adulterated with industrial alcohol. This export industry works both ways. The downside to a thriving local economy fueled by British tourist currency is the problems which often come with drunken behaviour, and the cost of coping with it, which according to one authoritative source now is as high as £100bn a year.

A range of European capitals have also suffered during 2009. Historic monuments seem to attract some of the worst activity. On August 6th the Mayor of the Latvian capital of Riga added his name to a long list of exasperated civic leaders, when he said, after a group of British tourists urinated against the city’s Monument of Freedom: ‘stag parties urinating against the country’s most revered national monument was particularly offensive’.

This episode is yet another example of the way some British tourists show disrespect to other cultures. The Monument to Freedom commemorates Latvian dead in the struggle for independence and is a symbol of resistance during Soviet rule. ‘It’s sacred to Latvians’, explained the Mayor, ‘even the Soviets daren’t touch it.’ And if that is good enough for the Soviets, no enemy to alcoholic excess themselves, it should be good enough for the rest of us. Riga is just one destination in new Europe opened up by cheap flights to old Europe. Most of the tourists who visit east European capitols are British. The exasperated mayor of Riga concluded: ‘If we had other tourists, then British visitors who **** about all of the time would not be as noticeable.’

The latest Foreign Office data published in 2008 shows the scale of the problem. As tourist destinations widen so too does the problem of British drinking behaviour. Arrests in Spain and Greece for binge drinking are rapidly increasing. In France, British arrests rose by over 42 per cent in a single year and in Spain there was a 33 per cent increase.

What are the reasons for these increasing tends? No doubt they are culturally and socially rooted, and complex. The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) published research this year suggesting the problem is a domestic one. We are simply exporting abroad a British phenomenon. In the last 10 years binge drinking in the UK among girls, for example, has increased so much that the UK now ranks second to Denmark in the girl binge drinking European league table. IAS estimate the cost of British drinking behaviour abroad now exceeds 125 billion Euros a year.

Another survey by the health charity Developing Patient Partnerships (DPP) revealed over a quarter of Britons drank alcohol with the sole intention of ‘getting drunk’, and the proportion doubled for those in the 18-24 year old age group. The IAS report recommends raising taxation, and raising the price of alcohol, curbing the power of supermarkets to sell strong alcohol cheaply, ending happy hours, placing greater investment in public education and increasing voluntary partnerships to ensure a greater understanding and respect for overseas cultures. In the UK alone, Government figures suggest that between 5 and 9 million UK children are living in families damaged by alcohol while nearly 10,000 UK deaths occur each year to bystanders and passengers from drink-driving.

Of course, Britain is not alone of course in having a drink problem. Alcohol misuse is a problem in many states in the European Union. But I do not see groups of European nationals indulging in group alcoholic excess while holidaying in Britain. Alcohol fuelled anti-social behaviour seems increasingly attached to British tourism. The victims can be the perpetrators but more often than not it is the host community that has to bear the full impact.

Find out more: Alcohol and human health




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