Lost Weekends on the Continent

His plane only touched down in Prague an hour ago but Briton Matt Slade is already speaking Czech with gusto. "Na Zdravi" [Czech for "cheers"], says the 28-year-old prison officer from Reading before downing Becherova, a local herbal liquor, to be followed by a chaser of Czech beer.

Slade and 10 British pals are in Prague for a weekend of prenuptial macho fun. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "one more beer, please" in Czech, Slade rattles off the weekend's activities: "We'll do some target shooting, a brewery tour, and pub crawl before taking in dinner and a show," he says, the latter a euphemism for the likely weekend highlight: a steak dinner and strip show.

At $650 per person for flights, hotels, meals, and entertainment, the weekend is a bargain, according to best man Lee Johnson, who's on his second Prague stag weekend. "Back home you would pay crazy money for this kind of package," says Johnson, 29. "It's much cheaper than spending the weekend at home."


  Bachelor (stag) and bachelorette (hen) parties are a longstanding British and Irish tradition. But what used to mean a night of carousing at the local pub has been supplanted by an activity-packed weekend on the Continent. True, the expansion of the European Union two years ago broke down the borders between East and West, but it's the explosive growth of discount flights that has made it possible for millions of Britons and Irishmen to actually cross them. Why pay a premium to booze it up in Blackpool or Dublin for a stag or hen weekend when you can hop a flight to Budapest or Bratislava for $30 roundtrip?

Lured by the combination of cheap booze and activities ranging from Kalashnikov shooting to nude mud wrestling to budget spa treatments, an estimated 70% of all British stag and hen parties now take place abroad, according to Britain's Foreign Office. According to research from online financial services company Egg, Britons spent $800 million on pre-wedding trips abroad in 2005.

No wonder a growing number of savvy entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this booming business niche. British expat Tom Kenyon co-founded Prague Pissup ("pissup" is British slang for a boozy party), the company that organized Slade's stag weekend, nearly five years ago. In the beginning, when there was only one budget airline flying between Britain and Prague, "We had only about 40 groups in the whole year," Kenyon recalls. "Now we can get 40 groups in a weekend."


  Not surprisingly, competition has intensified. Today, there are an estimated 70 such Internet-based tour companies catering to bachelor and bachelorette parties in Prague alone. "These include some big companies such as CEDOK, the largest travel agency in the Czech Republic, and an awful lot of would-be salesmen who are running Web sites from their bedrooms," Kenyon says.

More than 50,000 British partygoers flocked to Prague last year alone, and Kenyon's company catered to some 15,000 of them. Prague Pissup makes its money by a combination of fees from clients and local providers. It negotiates deals from hotels, restaurants, transportation, and activity providers in exchange for bringing business their way. Thanks in part to its minimal overhead, Kenyon says the company was profitable from the outset, although he declined to give figures. Prague Pissup's sales have soared from under $100,000 in 2002 to an estimated $3 million this year.

Kenyon is quick to credit budget European airlines such as Dublin-based Ryanair, Britain's Easyjet, and Hungarian discounter Wizz Air for Pissup's success, if not its existence. "It would have been more a hobby than a business," he says. The company's services have proved so popular it has opened branches in Tallinn, Budapest, and Bratislava, all destinations on the low-cost carriers' flight paths.


  As the budget airlines have opened up new East European routes, a growing number of Internet-based tour companies with names such as Last Night of Freedom, Play Away Weekends, and Baltic Stags have followed suit. Crazy Stag's Web site urges Brits to "be a bad boy in the Eastern bloc," while Bratislava Stags promises mud wrestling with "up to 10 beautiful, naked sexy women (not two or more lame girls in bikinis)"for $60 a person.

For many, a weekend abroad is a license to go wild. Bratislava Stags helpfully advises its clientele "not to urinate in fountains, pass out in club toilets, or throw furniture from hotel windows."

Such drunken antics don't always go down well with the locals. Other European cities, such as Amsterdam and Dublin, have had to crack down on rowdy stag and hen parties. After hordes of drunken prenuptial revelers started flooding into Dublin in the late 1990s, the Chamber of Commerce found that the pre-wedding fêtes were damaging the city's image. After enforcing a ban on a single-sex parties in pubs and clubs in the city's trendy Temple Bar district, business picked up as other tourists and locals returned.

While many Eastern European cities eager for Western tourism have been welcoming stag and hen parties with open arms, there are signs this might be changing. In Tallinn, Estonia -- which is being hailed as the new Prague -- already there are several hotels, bars, and clubs refusing entrance to stag parties. It's a similar story in Latvia. The tourist office in Riga last year warned that stag parties were damaging the city's reputation. It urged "weekend hooligans" from Britain and Ireland to stay clear.


  Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office is planning also to crack down on the behavior of some British stag parties out of town. Consular staffers increasingly "have to deal with the appalling results of British tourists carousing abroad," says Foreign Office Committee Chairman Edward Leigh. The Foreign Office in Prague says partygoers turn up at the British embassy "out of hours, drunk, incoherent, and lost."

As a result, Brits on stag and hen parties overseas are being warned they may face a bill if they get into trouble and call on the services of embassy staff. But that's not likely to deter the countless British and Irish partyseekers and the savvy entrepreneurs who are setting up to cater to them, from following the budget airlines eastwards.

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