The summer has arrived, and millions of Britons are now heading for the beaches, clubs and bars of Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Already, however, the first reports have come in of this year's trouble: 18 British youths have been arrested after one man was stabbed in a bar brawl in Crete, drunken young Britons have been picked up local police and charged with hooliganism and all around the Mediterranean coast British tourists have already caused uproar with heavy drinking, sex in public, fighting and brawling late into the night.
Are the British the world's worst behaved tourists? Is the violence that once marked British football hooligans now spreading to the beaches of southern Europe? Foreign governments have become increasingly angered by such behaviour, and are now enforcing zero tolerance of drugs and drunkenness. And British public opinion, shamed by the country's growing reputation abroad for boorishness, is now demanding a crack-down. Television programmes show vivid and embarrassing examples of how drunken Britons behave abroad. The Government has published figures showing the rise in arrests and the severe penalties for drug use abroad.
The story is the same everywhere. Cheap flights now bring in thousands of young people on package holidays offering cheap alcohol and a license to behave badly. "They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit," the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, said a few years ago. "It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French". Little has changed since then. Young Britons, mostly aged between 17 and 30, carouse, brawl and get violently sick. They crowd into health clinics seeking morning-after pills and help for sexually transmitted diseases.
A report published by the Foreign Office on "British Behaviour Abroad" expressed concern five years ago. Its latest figures show that the number of Britons detained by police overseas has increased by six percent, with 6015 arrests from April 2011 to March last year compared to 5700 in the previous year. There were 1909 arrests in Spain, more than in any other country, followed by the United States with 1305. Alcohol caused most of the problems in holiday destinations such as the Canary Islands, Majorca, Ibiza and the Costa del Sol.
A variety of explanations has been put forward for this annual parade of shame, ranging from the British climate, a culture of binge-drinking, a breakdown in traditional authority and family discipline, the huge new network of cheap flights, the rise of youth gangs, the publicity given on Facebook and social media to those indulging in excess, and the general view among young people that it is "cool" to drink too much and take your clothes off and that the normal rules of social behaviour do not apply abroad.
But the dangers of such behaviour are increasing. Most governments now mandate very harsh penalties for drug taking, and in several countries in Asia and the Middle East those convicted of using or carrying drugs face the death penalty. The Foreign Office has repeatedly warned Britons that it cannot interfere in the legal systems of other countries, and that a British consular official overseas is usually unable to get a British citizen released from prison.
Ignorance of local customs also causes grave offence. A few years ago two Britons convicted of having sex on the beach were sentenced to three years in prison in Dubai. More than a dozen British women were charged with prostitution after an open-air oral sex contest on a Greek island. Three men found guilty of drug offences in Dubai earlier this year were sentenced to four years in prison. And many women underestimate the danger of being raped – either by other Britons or by local men who think British women are promiscuous and easy targets. Last month a woman was raped in Turkey in the third such attack in the resort of Marmar is in recent weeks.
And drink has been responsible for a number of accidents and fatalities, when tourists have been drowned, fallen to their deaths off balconies or been fatally wounded in fights. The British consulate in Athens has run several campaigns in recent years, using posters and publicity to encourage young visitors to drink responsibly.
The blame does not rest entirely on the tourists. Many bars and resorts in Greece and Spain cater especially for the British, offering British food, British pubs and English-speaking clubs and discos. Some clubs offer especially strong alcohol at very cheap prices. For about $50 in Malia, tourists can drink in as many pubs as they can visit. And the tour operators promote this idea to attract customers, already encouraging them to expect this sort of behaviour when they arrive.
A recent survey among young people in Britain found that many believe the right to drink as much as they want abroad is part of their identity as Britons. And certainly the growth of binge-drinking – drinking simply in order to get drunk quickly – within Britain is encouraging this attitude. Young Britons are also unused to being able to stay up late at night in a warm climate, and so try to make the most of the good weather when on holiday. This means partying every night, drinking too much and having as much sex as possible. The unpleasant results are streets and beaches covered in vomit and many young women who end up pregnant.
Media coverage is also to blame. Television reports of loutish behaviour by British tourists are sensationalist and popular but can actually encourage people to behave badly in order to get on television. One television channel has just been accused of deliberately trying to provoke bad behaviour in Kavos, a popular resort in Corfu. A series called "What happens in Kavos" drew 1.6 million viewers last year, while another series called "Sex, Sun and Suspicious Parents" attracted 1.1 million viewers. Producers of the shows have been accused of exploiting teenage girls, giving prizes to any staff who can find girls taking the morning-after pill and persuading confused young people into signing agreements to be filmed at a time when they are too drunk to understand what they are reading.
Britons are not the only badly behaved tourists, however. Germans also have a reputation abroad for heavy drinking. And the French, notoriously, chase local girls. But other tourists do not congregate so exclusively together, heading for tourist resorts where almost everyone else is British. And tourists from southern Europe – Spain, Italy or Greece – who visit the north will find neither hot sun nor cheap drink.
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However, the newcomers to Europe, the Russians, are fast catching up the British in a reputation for bad behaviour, drunkenness and violence in holiday resorts. Many have a lot of money, and behave arrogantly to local staff in restaurants and hotels. And Russians, like Britons, do not find it easy to adapt to the customs or attitudes of other countries. Indeed, so worried have some hotels and clubs in popular Mediterranean resorts become that the Russians will discourage other visitors that they have put up notices saying "No Russians", and tried to prevent any more bookings from Russian tourists.
As always, those who suffer are the innocent majority – the tourists who are sober, polite and well-behaved. Britons travel abroad in large numbers, with 7 million people going overseas in August alone last year. Those who spend a lot of money going to more distant destinations in India, Africa or Vietnam rarely cause trouble. They tend to be older, richer and better educated. It is in Europe, especially at the cheaper resorts, where young Britons create a reputation as ill-mannered hooligans. And other, better behaved visitors pay the price for their compatriots' antics.