Nuns on the rum

The arrest of 17 British men dressed as nuns in Crete should remind us how unmenacing laddish tourists really are.

Peter Smith

Topics World

Holiday-related silly season stories are a stock trade of the British media in the slow-news summer months. And the arrest of 17 British tourists dressed as nuns in Crete on Saturday night helped to usher in the silly season a little earlier than normal.

The group – members of Bristol-based football teams Hanham Athletic and Hanham Sunday League Team – were arrested in a bar in the seaside resort of Malia. They were taking part in the Hanham Sunday Tour, an annual trip. In previous years the men have dressed as St Trinians’ schoolgirls in Portugal and as babies in Cyprus and they’ve never experienced any trouble before. But dressing as nuns, it seems, is a step too far.

Still in their nun costumes, lingerie and wimples, the men, all aged 18 to 65, were marched into the courtroom in Crete by police officers on Monday morning to face charges of ‘causing a scandal by provocative acts and misrepresenting a uniform’. A local police officer alleged: ‘They were dressed like nuns, carrying crosses, but wearing thongs under their skirts and showing people their bottoms and the rest.’ (1) For the local authorities, the men’s behaviour was clearly holy unacceptable.

It has been widely reported in the British media, but we should be nonplussed – or perhaps nun-plussed – by this latest story about ‘drunken and disrespectful’ British tourists. Mick Underhill, the 59-year-old chairman of Hanham Athletic, said they were only on their second drink when they were arrested and forced to spend 40 hours in the purgatory of a Crete prison cell (2). More tellingly, when the men appeared in court on Monday, no one showed up to testify against them, so they were promptly released without charge. They had to travel back to Malia still dressed as nuns. Underhill has since said: ‘The costumes are in the bin now.’ (3)

An amusing story, maybe – but like Lent and Christmas, the ‘drunken Brit abroad’ story comes around every year, accompanied by much handwringing and snobbish commentary. The popular image of the ‘drunken Brit abroad’ is just too good for an editor to turn down – which is why photographs of a non-incident involving 17 men dressed as nuns walking into court in Crete were splashed across media outlets yesterday.

In 2003, Faliraki, on the Greek island of Rhodes, became that summer’s scare story. Reports of drunken British youngsters prompted the Greek authorities to announce that they intended to crack down on bad behaviour, a crackdown welcomed by many UK newspapers. The Guardian, in temperate form, backed the local authorities, declaring: ‘Their long-overdue attempt to end the degradation that British “booze tourism” has inflicted on their islands and culture deserves this country’s enthusiastic approval and cooperation.’ The editorial went on to ask what drives this ‘annual British plague’ (4). Last summer, the shrill headlines and reports of British behaviour abroad were in stark contrast to the far less newsworthy reality on the ground (5). With all the fuss and hyperbole – ‘degradation’, ‘plague’, ‘shame of binge-drink Britons abroad’ – it’s worth getting some perspective on this annual discussion of British tourists.

Government figures show a very different story to the frequent media reports. According to the UK Foreign Office’s British Behaviour Abroad: Annual Report 2008, three million British tourists visited Greece between April 2006 and March 2007 and there were a total of… 230 arrests! How many of them were in fancy dress was not confirmed by the Greek authorities, though the nuns from Bristol will now appear in next year’s Foreign Office statistics.

Elsewhere in Europe, a mere 2,032 Brits were arrested in Spain out of a total of 17million British visitors to the country. And of 14.8million British tourists to France, a grand total of 153 were arrested. Cyprus, where, as a proportion, British visitors were most likely to be arrested, recorded only 377 arrests out of 1.5million British tourists in the 12 months to March 2007 – just one arrest for every 4,000 people who visited (6).

It is unclear from the Foreign Office figures how many of these recorded arrests ended in convictions; many of them may have been like the nuns-from-Bristol: arrested but not convicted of anything. This matters little to anti-travel snobs however, who seem to get down on their hands and knees to pray for stories like this to fulfil their prejudicial view of the drunken Brit abroad. It should be no surprise that the alleged ‘sin’ of having an overseas stag or hen night is frequently frowned upon by environmental opponents of cheap air travel.

Of course resorts and towns reliant on tourism must try to manage the arrival of large numbers of tourists in season, and no one is naive enough to suggest that drunken young Brits don’t sometimes behave badly. Tensions do arise, but they are normally worked out locally with few lasting consequences. The release without charge of the men dressed as nuns confirms the more sober reality of many incidents involving British holidaymakers.

Mass tourism has long been criticised and carefree holidaymakers openly despised for their leisure activities. In the nineteenth century, when Thomas Cook started taking groups of working-class people to the British seaside as part of the first organised package holidays, the well-off elites reacted with horror. The growth of low-cost airlines over the past decade has further fuelled anti-mass travel arguments – this time couched in environmental rather than cultural or class terms. Yet the reports of the ‘nuns’ should remind us who is normally the target of criticism: the working-class masses who holiday in the sun – nun outfits or not.

Thankfully, the men from Bristol were able to continue with the rest of their holiday. But be prepared for more over-the-top reports of British behaviour abroad this summer. I, on the other hand, say ‘praise be’ for mass tourism.

Peter Smith is director of tourism at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, London.

Previously on spiked

Peter Smith said that despite shrill headlines about badly-behaved Brits, most people have a great time overseas. James Panton urged us to celebrate the freedom of flight. Neil Davenport had no sympathy with those who welcome a recession in the name of ‘saving the planet’. Brendan O’Neill said commentators who rejoiced over the closure of 700 Starbucks coffee shops expressed the socialism of fools. Or read more at spiked issues Tourism and travel and Economy.

(1) Brits held as stag night fancy-dress as nuns upsets the locals, Daily Mirror, 26 May 2009

(2) Nun-dressed party ‘was not drunk’, BBC News, 26 May 2009

(3) Football team arrested for dressing as nuns will ‘never forget’ Crete ordeal, Daily Telegraph, 26 May 2009

(4) Rhodes to freedom: Greece should crack down on boozy Brits, Guardian, 21 August 2003

(5) See Sun, sea, sand and snobbery, by Peter Smith

(6) British behaviour abroad annual report, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 12 August 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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