By Zofia Reych
With the prospect of Thailand generating record revenues from tourism in 2016, the government has announced a crackdown on the country’s infamous sex industry.
The uncertainty brought to Thailand’s economic future by the political turmoil of 2014 means that attracting foreign visitors is more important than ever. The junta takeover, as well as developments such as the murder of two British backpackers, deterred many potential travellers. Arrivals from Europe dropped by 15%, and from Russia by nearly a half.
For years, Thailand’s burgeoning sex industry has been the driving force behind the tourism sector, with the Immigration Bureau estimating that every seven in ten male visitors to the country come to Thailand to purchase sexual services. However, this might be about to change.
The economy of sex
Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul is not only the country’s first female Sports and Tourism Minister, she’s also the first one intent at rebranding Thailand as a “female-friendly” travel destination. After the case of a British tourist raped in Pai hit the headlines last year, and with Thailand under strong international criticism for its “rape culture”, the time has never been better, but Kobkarn has to be aware of the stakes.
Speaking of the sex industry, she told Reuters: “Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture.”
This, clearly, is just wishful thinking.
Prostitution in Thailand is a $6.4 billion industry. Apart from idyllic beaches and Bangkok parties, it is the adult entertainment sector that foreign visitors come for. If the Immigration Bureau estimations are right, closing the door on sex tourists would be the equivalent of turning down over 40% of visitors.
This might sound like a terrible idea, but it is not the Pattaya ramblers that Thailand wants to attract. All over the world, luxury travel has been growing nearly twice faster than the rest of the tourism sector, and it is the luxurious traveller that Thai officials wish to welcome in the country.
At present, tourism accounts for over 10% of Thailand’s GDP. Kobkarn is set on erasing the image of the country as a adult entertainment destination; a perception likely to deter other travellers. The aforementioned Pattaya, world famous for its red light district, is going to be the first to receive a makeover.
“It could be turned into a world class sports city. I would love to see more world water sports and other events in the city, as well as it being home for athletes’ training during low seasons,” said Kobkarn.
On orders from the minister, Thai police have been recently raiding the Pattaya entertainment venues, resulting in over 100 arrests of sex workers, 15 of which were minors.
Other ministerial efforts include women only, pink zones introduced at international airports. The aim is to diversify the travel sector through attracting more female visitors. The somewhat awkward initiative, known as “a month for female travellers”, is set to be carried out in August.
At present, there are most likely around 200,000 female sex workers in Thailand, although other estimates suggest that more than two million is a more likely figure.. Already in 1998, The International Labour Organisation calculated that women working in the adult entertainment industry each sent nearly US$300 a year to their families in rural parts of the country.
Sex tourism in Thailand has its roots in the Vietnam War era, with allegedly as much as US$16 million of foreign soldiers’ money spent on sexual services during that time. Although prostitution has been banned in Thailand since 1960, the sector has been steadily growing, resulting in the country’s seedy reputation.
Although sex tourism can be seen as a development strategy, it is the economic imbalance between the buyer and the seller that deem it morally, to say the least, dubious. Human trafficking and child abuse are also closely connected with the sex sector.
However, for many, prostitution offers an otherwise inaccessible way out of poverty. “No one wants to work in this business, but it’s fast and easy money,” said an anonymous sex worker interviewed by the Reuters. She also admitted to making over 20 times the minimum daily wage on an average night.
Thailand’s strategy of penalising women for selling sex is a backwards way of dealing with the issue. A government spokesperson acknowledged this fact as long ago as 1999, saying that: “The sexual service business is an internal problem that we are trying to curb, but controlling the supply will not help much if the demand keeps pouring in.” Thailand would be much better off adopting the Swedish model of decriminalising prostitution and cracking down on those buying sex instead, but it’s not likely to happen as it would mean putting behind bars many a tourist with a thick wallet.
Although pro-sex work perspectives maintain that prostitution does not inherently involve exploitation or violence, as long as the Thais are pushed into the industry by poverty or lack of opportunities, it must be opposed. Tackling with sex tourism is not a bad place to start, but whether Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul can execute her plan for the country’s tourism makeover without missing out on revenues, is a whole different question.