When throwing in the towel is verboten


A new guide to beach etiquette says laying a towel on a sunlounger gives you no claim to it. So prepare for battle on the beaches, warns Shane Hegarty.

There will be fighting on the beaches. This week, the Germans were told that leaving a beach towel on a sunlounger does not legally entitle them to claim it. British tourists rubbed their red, peeling hands with glee. The delicate diplomacy of the tourist resort has been shattered.

It's unlikely that there were too many tourists traipsing the beaches and swimming pools of southern Spain in search of a spare sunlounger who truly believed that a court of law would uphold the rights of a German or British tourist to a chair simply because they got up at 5.30am, threw a towel on it and then went back to bed. Yet, there has always been an unspoken understanding between the different nationalities over such holiday behaviour.

Over three decades of package holidays, different nationalities have been thrust onto the same teeming beaches, campsites and hotels across Europe and the world. The locals have gritted their teeth and put up with the tourists. The tourists, meanwhile, have agreed to put up with each other.

However, German lawyer Ralf Hocker's New Dictionary of Popular Legal Errors has rocked poolsides across the continent.

"A British tourist would be quite within their legal rights to ignore the reservation implied by the towels if there is nobody there," he confirmed. Previously for the British, in a minor territorial battle that channelled centuries of enmity between the countries, it was just a matter of getting up earlier and planting their St George's Cross towel on the spot.

The tourists' seasonal expression of the national stereotype, though, has been under threat for some time. The Germans were already in the thick of the cultural battle, with the Italians turning on them last month by releasing a guide to beach etiquette that was aimed squarely at their northern neighbours. Published by the coolly titled Italian Union of Bathing Establishments, it tackled the twin German loves of nudity and alcohol. It suggested that topless sunbathing and seaside beer drinking are bad enough when done separately, but completely verboten when combined. It also advised that skimpy underwear should not be hung from beach umbrellas, that tiny Speedos were not welcome and that the Germans could at least try to eat less noisily.

Reversing the policies of generations of Italians, the mayor of the Riviera resort of Alassio has made the covering up of bare-skinned beauties his main goal. His resort now features signs that show an "X" over a picture of a bikini-clad woman, reminding Germans of a ban on skimpy costumes outside of beaches.

The Germans, protective over both their beer and the right to wear something that allows the breeze reach the parts that most clothes can't, launched a ferocious verbal offensive. The newspaper Bild decried that banning beer "is a heresy for Germans, not unlike outlawing pizza in Italy".

This follows similar crackdowns on expressions of the national stereotype by other tourists in other resorts. Most notably, and following a series of violent incidents, in 2003, police on the Greek resort of Faliraki so tired of the sight of drunken British tourists baring their pink flesh that they raided a Beautiful Bottom competition in a local bar, arrested an 18-year-old British girl and fined her €2,500 for flashing her breasts. It followed the arrest of a 20-year-old man for baring his buttocks. According to reports the resort has quietened since.

The daily battle of the beach towel has always typified a strained communality, although the Irish, showing admirable dedication to the holiday lie-in, have generally stayed out of it. Being doggedly neutral in all issues of territoriality, we have always treated each side equally and prefer to complain about everybody. We gripe about the Germans and their towels, avoid the British and their pubs, consider the French rude because they insist on speaking French. We're notionally bilingual, but not in any languages that are useful for fitting in abroad. We persist on bringing our own tea bags with us.

Still, we believe ourselves to be universally loved. Not so, as a 2003 survey by travel company Expedia showed. We are, in fact, the second worst tourists, behind the British but level with the Israelis. The Germans, it turned out, were the top tourists: polite, obliging, linguistically adventurous. We, on the other hand, had particular specialities: "Which nationality are the worst behaved tourists by, for example, being noisy, drunk or litter louts?" the survey asked tourist offices in 17 countries. The Irish, they replied. Nor are we particularly bothered to speak the local lingo, although it didn't mention our preference for putting an -o or an -os at the end of English words regardless of whether we are in Portugal or Poland. We're gastronomic cowards too, instead opting for "Uno burgero and chipso, per favoros".

For years, such behaviour was tolerated. However, between this legal row over German towels and the changing attitudes in the resorts, some of those unspoken holiday traditions are now under threat. If the Italians can prohibit skimpy bathing suits (and no bathing suits at all), then socks with sandals could be next.

These are strained times in the international tourist community. The Germans are only just short of banging their flip-flops on the table in disgust. The British are crowing over this temporary victory. Hopefully the Irish can take advantage and grab the last sunlounger while they're distracted.