British stag parties test E. European welcome

Dusk in Dunakeszi, and it's time to go. We rev up our fleet of ancient East German Trabant cars and do our best to rally them back through the hills to Budapest, though frankly it's a struggle given the tinny little engines and almost nonexistent brakes.

We're on a British stag weekend, or bachelor party, which no longer involves an eve-of-wedding event at the local pub but more outlandish activities such as looping the loop in a Lithuanian propeller plane, bobsleighing in Latvia, or whitewater rafting down treacherous Slovakian rapids.

For Brits, cheap flights and cheaper entertainment make many Eastern European cities - for example, Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; Tallinn, Estonia; and Vilnius, Lithunia - highly appealing venues. Dozens of stag-tour operators have sprung up in the past two years to tap the new market.

But eastern Europeans do not necessarily find the stag parties so appealing. In fact, the outings appear to be producing a new version of the "ugly American."

Our weekend, like that of many other stag groups, is of the harmless, if silly, variety: a decision that we'll all answer to the name Dave, for example, and the fume-filled Trabant rally that may have ruined Hungary's chances of meeting its Kyoto protocol commitments.

But much of the behavior of visiting Brits is far more raucous. And as thousands careen around East European capitals each weekend, locals are starting to grumble about a distinct lack of appreciation for local sensitivities. The impression of the British as a genteel people is rapidly waning. In Prague, for example, locals have complained about being overrun with bawdy Brits drinking cheap lager and scoping out prostitutes. As many as 1,200 stag groups are thought to descend on Prague each year and British visitor numbers to the city jumped more than 50 percent last year. The mayor, Pavel Bem, has already sought to rein in the red-light district and wants visitors to respect local customs. Bars and restaurants have started to refuse large groups of men, according to city hall spokeswoman Jana Kobesova.

In Tallinn, where "staggers" make up a small but awkward proportion of visitors, there are similar concerns. "They cause inconveniences, particularly for the private sector," says Kersti Uus, who works at the tourism authority. "Already, there are several hotels, bars, and clubs where entrance for participants of stag parties is forbidden."

So common is overseas travel becoming for stag parties that the Foreign Office recently published a survey which found that 70 percent of young British people now prefer stag parties with an international dimension - but that almost three-fifths make no effort to read up on their destination's customs and laws.

Tamas Sinoros, our guide one evening, says the stag influx exploded after Hungary joined the EU last year. From two or three groups a weekend, the company he works for now handles up to 15 groups - all of them British.

"Sometimes it can be difficult," says Mr. Sinoros, who is here to smooth over misunderstandings between Brits and locals. Misunderstandings among Brits and other Brits is another matter. "You don't get so many problems between the stag groups and locals, but often the stags end up fighting each other," he says. "And then five minutes later they are all friendly and hugging each other. You don't really know what to do when they're like that."

He says many Hungarians turn a blind eye to the noisy intrusions. Stag parties bring in formidable amounts of currency to a region that really needs it.

As a young guide shuttling around town with stag tour groups, Aniko Kovacs says she has felt slightly uncomfortable at times. "It was strange going to the thermal baths with 30 men," she says, noting that her duties ended at the cashier's desk. "I got a lot of funny looks."

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