For many Eastern European countries, becoming a Ryanair destination has been a double-edged sword. The low-cost airline brings with it a ready-made market of young, adventurous tourists willing to fly bare-bones in order to spend money at their destinations.
But even upon their arrival this group spends fairly little, and can get pretty messy in the process. The British "stag" and "hen" (bachelor and bachelorette) parties that have become synonymous with Ryanair are notoriously drunken and destructive, as travel site forums littered with stories of "stag do" members drinking out of shoes and vomiting everywhere attest.
Ryanair attracts these pre-wedding group getaways precisely because of its low cost. As William Stearn of Maximise, a travel company specializing in planning stag and hen parties, pointed out, even a group with affluent members needs to accommodate the lowest common denominator when traveling as a unit.
“Not everyone’s gonna have money to spend,” Stearm said. ”That’s the dynamic that always has to be taken into account.” Ryanair fares are as low as $47 from London to Baltic countries such as Latvia, and even less for shorter trips.
Latvia is a popular choice for these weekends, as are other Eastern European cities such as Budapest, Prague, and Estonia’s capital Tallinn. That’s in part because Ryanair has made them each a cheap (but still exotic) hop across the continent, but they’re also popular for offering what’s hard to find in buttoned-up Britain.
“The strip clubs are more liberal, and cheaper,” said Stearn. “Plus there are activities in Eastern Europe that you simply can not do in the U.K.,” he said, “high-octane activities.” Those include paintball, go-carting, bobsledding, and just shooting guns on a range, which is difficult to do in the U.K.
These new favorite low-cost destinations don’t always feel the same about them, though. Price-conscious travelers aren’t a popular market to begin with, but when they’re also known partiers, they really lose favor. Cities would prefer to host gourmands or art buffs – and see them spend money on high-quality goods and services – than crews of budget bacchanalians.
The French city of Deauville even protested the arrival of Ryanair to its local airport in 2006, saying that tourists would "cheapen" its image.
“Everybody knows what they mean, British stag parties or hen parties,” said Aigars Smiltans, the marketing and communications director for the tourism office in Riga, Latvia, which was named the No. 1 stag party destination of 2006 by the U.K. edition of FHM magazine.
That crown hung a bit too heavy on the city of 700,000, where the bachelor influx turned much of the industry off to stag parties altogether, according to Smiltans. “Restaurants started to turn them away,” he said. Plus, a "tourist police unit" Riga authorities set up in 2010 began to fine disorderly visitors, with a seeming emphasis on British revelers. The spurned stags took to social media to complain, and word got out through those sites as well as through media reports of the (unofficial) new policies.
Sure enough, bachelors started to look elsewhere for their party weekends. “We sort of lost this charming appeal for stag party companies,” said Smiltans. “They stopped while they choose another destination.”
Turning away tourists may seem a bold risk for a city with a struggling economy. It could presumably use all the business it can get, and the estimated $780 million a year stag party industry is nothing to sneeze at. But Smiltans said the wider tourist appeal of a hooligan-free Riga more than made up for the Brits’ lost business. The wider tourist group, he says, is “more cultural, more looking for quality instead of cheapness and roughness.”
Plus, Riga has held on to the higher end of the stag industry. “We still have travel agencies who are working on those stag parties and for whom major parts of their business is stag parties. But they are changing their profile a little bit and adding new products with higher value.” That, he said, helps weed out the visitors only interested in binge drinking at the lowest possible cost.
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First published August 28 2013, 12:14 PM