Thursday, April 06, 2006

European Voice Wilder Europe Column

Opera and strudel beat stag nights and sex

By Edward Lucas

There is a red-light district in Vienna, but you would never hear about it from the Austrian tourism authorities.

That's because they want rich, refined visitors who come for high culture and upmarket shopping. Such people spend a lot of money on food and accommodation too - and they raise the tone of a city.
Advertising your city for its civilised charms, rather than for cheap sex and booze, is common sense. So I was baffled and infuriated at a conference last week to see a brochure from the Lithuanian Tourism Board giving a prominent puff for a visit to the striptease joints of Vilnius.
This is so wrong-headed I can only assume that it is part of a clever Russian plan to destabilise the Lithuanian economy. Promoting the red-light district is the best possible way of deterring the well-heeled tourists that Lithuania, like every other poor but beautiful post-Communist country, needs to attract.
It's not as if there was any shortage of real attractions. The Vilnius Old Town is a panoramic paradise of baroque and rococo architecture, rivalled only by Cracow and Lviv. Admittedly, the 20th century left the insides of the buildings less interesting than their outsides, but there's still plenty to admire. My own favourite is the lingering traces of the Jewish and especially the Yiddish-speaking civilisations of pre-Holocaust Lithuania. There are also Polish, Russian and Soviet legacies, plus of course medieval and modern Lithuania.
There is a feast of real diversion and entertainment, of the kind that uplifts the soul, informs the mind and stimulates the aesthetic senses. So why on earth obscure that with sleaze, especially when it will attract the kind of visitors who will ruin Vilnius for ever?
I would like to take the Lithuanian tourism authorities (at gunpoint if necessary) to Cyprus, where they could see what happens when a beautiful place drenched with history and culture is run by greedy stupid people. The bars and fast-food joints of Agia Napa, where drunken sluts and macho louts drink until they puke, make a fair bit of money, it's true. But they have ruined any chance that Cyprus might have of being anything more. Once you take the downmarket road, it's almost impossible to go back: you have the wrong hotels, the wrong restaurants, the wrong shops - and worst of all, the wrong reputation.
The stag parties (bachelor nights) that plague the cities of eastern Europe are still only a nuisance, not a menace. It's hard to stop them altogether. But the aim of the tourism authorities should be to herd them away to places where they won't put off the other tourists. If there must be a red-light district, put it somewhere where no normal visitor will have to see it.
I tried explaining this to a bumptious Lithuanian diplomat, but he thought I was just being prudish. He seemed to think that striptease joints are just a bit of fun and that sex-tourists are the inevitable consequence of low-cost airlines. I tried to explain that this was not the point. Venice is served by low-cost airlines, and nobody goes there for the nightlife (the moonlight dances on the water, but that's it).
The sex industry shouldn't be banned. But it should be made to pay for the damage it does to a city's reputation. Licences for lapdancing clubs and the like should be auctioned, to extract the maximum amount of cash. That could then help finance the kind of events that attract a desirable kind of tourist.

  • Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.

    Aleksejs Nipers said...

    I am regularly visiting one Holland based agro-news portal in the internet, which is called Freshplaza. By my opinion they are unprofessional, but I like them because they put not only news, but also video jokes in the home page.
    Some month ago I find very interesting topic about such a European country as Livonia (!!!) in their news list. From the context I understood that it is about Latvia.
    Reading this text I had the similar filling – that Edward mistakenly put "Lithuania" instead of "Latvia" and "Vilnius" instead of "Riga"... :)))

    richardlith said...

    Mr Lucas should read the LIthuanian press to find out the attitude of the Lithuanians to the sex industry. In places like leituvos Rytas and Respublika's Laisvalaikis supplement, nightclub reveiws praise strip clubs for their tasteful decor, refined and educated dancers (!), "solidny" clientele (can anyone suggest a translation for this common world in Slavic/Baltic languages). Even the captions under the photographs under dancers say things lke "educated and refined dancers at the X club show that they are not afraid to show off their beauty). Indeed, it is all part of the idea, promoted most enthusiastically by middle-aged women and not lecherous left-the-wife-at-home foreign men, that "Lithuanian girls are the most beautiful in the world." Anyway , congrats to Lucas for highlighting this and campaigning against the glorification of the sex industry, but he seems to be fighting a losing battle