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CULTURE MATTERS: Stop boozing, get in your camper

NOT long ago I witnessed a group of British lads shouting "go on" and "come on" in mockery as a man ran to catch a tram in the centre of Bratislava. Subdued passers-by turned and stared in uncomprehending surprise at these strange barbarians.

NOT long ago I witnessed a group of British lads shouting "go on" and "come on" in mockery as a man ran to catch a tram in the centre of Bratislava. Subdued passers-by turned and stared in uncomprehending surprise at these strange barbarians.

I could pass it off as just another in a similar line of funny incidents, but is this the sort of thing we want from mass travel to Slovakia? There is no cultural exchange in such behaviour, no learning, and with the growing popularity of budget flights from the UK to Slovakia, Bratislava's place on the list of top European locations for stag parties is, I'm afraid, set to stay.

The fact that many of the drunken British blokes arriving in Bratislava don't even know what country they are in may be neither here nor there, but I think we should be worried. Is this how Britain wants to represent itself? Is this what the Bratislava authorities want for their city? Is this how tourism will develop in Slovakia: cheap flights to Sliač or Poprad unleashing hordes of pale-faced, pot-bellied, shaven-headed yobs on the people of Banská Bystrica or the High Tatras?

Even though I feel a certain affection towards these binge-drinking weekenders (I like a drink or three myself) the answer to all three questions must be "no". To my mind travel should be a way of experiencing the new, of making contact with other cultures and learning about them, not dragging your worst habits with you and letting them loose on an unsuspecting, very welcoming and tolerant local population, which is how I see the Slovaks.

The groups-of-lads tourism is currently confined to Brits (at least in Bratislava) but how long before the airlines tap the boozing potential of the Germans, the Greeks, the Finns?

Maybe the real problem is not cheap flights but boredom , or a lack of imagination in travellers these days. We should encourage people to do something different with their weekends, anything but ending up face down in a pool of puke in a central European beer cellar.

Another answer might be, er, camping. Sounds unpromising perhaps, but a Slovak colleague of mine recently returned from vacationing in Ireland, where to see the sun is like witnessing a miracle, and where the sea is much too dangerous and cold to set foot in.

She claims, however, that 10 days of cooking outdoors and walking up Irish hillsides has done her the world of good, and judging from the healthy flush on her face, it is true.

There is hope for Bratislava, and Slovakia as a whole.

I read in The Guardian this week that many professionals with children in Britain are taking to their camping vans and seeking the great outdoors for their breaks. They want a healthier outdoor holiday and are sick of the consumer lifestyle inflicted on their children by rampant capitalism. In other words, they want something different, and hopefuly that may rub off on the lads.

The Slovak tourist authorities could take advantage and market the country as an outdoor destination for those who have spending power and would value the experience of being in an unfamiliar, yet culturally accessible land.

Slovakia has beautiful, unspoilt countryside, lakes and rivers; the people have the sort of unpretentious approach to life that many in Britain and Western Europe would like to return to.

And the lads, well, there's hope for them yet.

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