The impacts of sex tourism on Thailand

What do you know about the economics of Sex Tourism in Thailand?  What are the Impacts of Sex tourism on Thailand?

Sex tourism in Thailand has been an issue for quite a while. It’s not something that is promoted openly but does happen on a daily basis.  During my early 20’s I finished my bachelor in tourism and business.  Somewhere throughout my third year, we had the assignment to write an essay about a subject that you had experienced first hand. I decided to write mine about the ongoing problems with sex tourism in Thailand. Even though, this isn’t the usual kind of subject I would post. I would like to share it with you all here, with the hope that more publicity and knowledge can change the problem that is sex tourism in Thailand. 

The writing in this article is kind of serious, this is, however, a subject that still makes me question tourism and people..

Asia’s sex industry

Asia’s tourism industry has developed immensely during the past 30 years, which also resulted in a growing interest in Thailand. Over the past twenty years, Thailand has had one of the most rapidly growing economic growth rates of any developing country in the world. The tourism revenue of $4 billion each year allowed Thailand to turn up as the economic leader in the developing world. Officials have said that the success of their tourism industry is mainly thanks to the “uniqueness” of the Thai people, many attractions around the country, the friendliness and hospitality, no words are spoken about the sex tourism that brings a large part of the tourists to this country.

Each year Thailand is visited by millions of tourists from around the world.  However, many people do not know that 60% of the visitors are male and that an astonishing 70% of those males are sex tourists. Thailand, however, does not seem to recognise or acknowledge the ongoing sex tourism in its country, the fact that Thai sex tourism is being ignored can be explained by the following. The worldwide tourism industry believes that the success of a country in tourism can be measured by economic factors. All other factors are not taken into consideration; this is why it is believed that it is in the best interest of any country to censor the factors that have a potentially negative effect. We could say that most of the general public does not even know about the Thai sex tourism economy and is only confronted with it when going to a destination where it takes place.

The purpose of this writing is to give a deeper insight into the impacts that sex tourism leaves behind in Thailand. Over the years many came up with solutions that were supposed to decrease sex tourism, all have been found not to be the main solution and the problem lives on. It is hard to find out the impacts that sex tourism economy leaves behind. This is hard to find out due to the nature of the Thai people. They don’t show much emotion to the public and never show weakness since this is seen as one of the biggest mistakes you could make in their culture.

Did you know that sex tourism is one of the biggest problems in Thailand's tourism industry? By

The term ‘sex tourism’

What exactly is ‘sex tourism’, often it refers to tourists who travel to specific destinations with the goals of purchasing the services of local women and men. There are different varieties of sex tourism; it can range from illegal brothels (such as a lot of the massage places you see in Thailand) to pornography, erotic phone calls, street prostitution or call girls. Sex tourists are primarily men that come from more developed countries who then travel to underdeveloped countries such as Thailand. However, women from developed countries are also starting to travel with the goal of pursuing sex tourism, they do, however, visit different countries such as Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

In the last few years the internet has been very convenient for marketing sex tourism and is accountable for the rise in the industry. Different websites provide sex seekers information on other sex tourists. They are able to find information on sexual exploits with detailed information on prices of sex establishments in different destinations and how to approach prostitutes. There are also sex tour travel agents that have their own guides and brochures with information on different sex destinations. Here is a great example of one of those websites where men can find advise on sex tourism in Thailand.

There are many different descriptions of sex tourism, which one is the right one is for you to decide. The most basic and most often used; is that sex tourism could be defined as a person travelling exclusively in search of sex. They often do this with pre-purchased packages that include the companionship of a local woman at a destination.

The sex trade is where sex tourism started originally, it made Thailand more popular as a destination because it was accessible and had no laws concerning the sex trade. Prostitution was legal in Thailand until 1960, this changed because the government of Thailand saw that sex tourism was no longer a proper and successful way of improving the economy of the country. This is why in 1960 the parliament came up with the Prostitution Suppression (Prohibition) Act. This act says that it is illegal for every person in Thailand to participate in the sex industry except the clients, for them it is still legal.

Another definition is that sex tourism is a travel experience where a crucial element of the holiday is that the tourists buy sexual services of the local population. When you think of Thailand’s sex tourism the image in mind is usually of red light districts, exploitation and prostitution, but is often very different. It is argued that tourists travel for a plethora of reasons which includes leisure, culture or business. However that as sexual beings the tourists could get into a situation where they find themselves in sexual or romantic encounters with locals during their travel. In other words, it is said that coincidentally these men have sexual encounters with locals. This description of sex tourism is in my opinion, the least correct, research shows that many of these men go to destinations with a clear goal; to have sexual encounters with a local.

Did you know that sex tourism is one of the biggest problems in Thailand's tourism industry? By

Promotion of sex tourism

Sex tourism in some countries is promoted as actual sex tourism, a good example are the Philippines. However, in Thailand, sex tourism is illegal and therefore cannot be promoted by the Thailand Tourism Authority. No one knows exactly where Thailand’s sex tourism, many say that it has its roots in Buddhism, or that it all started because of the informal handling of sexuality, they even say that the Chinese guest-workers imported it from their home country. The only fact that is true is that prostitution started to really get popular around the time of the Vietnam War and has been increasing every year.

The statistics concerning sex tourism in Thailand are very vague. It is said that one third of the sex workers are minors. However, there are no exact numbers that indicate how many Thai woman and children are actually working in the business, it is guessed that there are at least 2 million sex workers in Thailand.

Thai sex tourism is like a fantasy for many of the sex tourists. These pliant girls will do anything, and that is how it is promoted in the unofficial channels. But what is said before, the scale of how big prostitution actually is, is very unclear. 

Sex tourists can be divided into three subgroups. Group one are the semi-skilled workers in their early 20’s that look for sexual experiences. Group two are the ordinary guys that are more interested in romance or an actual emotional involvement with one or more women. The last group is the businessmen, in this last group you find men who are looking for sexual experiences that are forbidden in their home country. 

The tourist than again can be divided in four different groups. Number one are the men who go on sex tours, these are organised trips which are advertised in their home country. Then there is a group that travels independently but specifically looks for sex at their destination. The third group is looking for a holiday in paradise but have in the back of their mind that this includes doing things that can’t be done at home. The last group are the men that visit Thailand once but keep coming back because they are ‘addicted’ to the hospitality of the Thai and their friendliness, these man are often very lonely in their home country.

The demand for sex tourism keeps rising every day, sex tourists often get bored with a destination after visiting it a few times. They then start looking for new destinations with new women. Because of this demand, companies will keep on coming up with different tours and destinations. This is the way that sex tourism is spread globally; people get bored and move to another destination. If a global law was made that would stop the sex tourists from booking their holidays in their home countries, we would already see a dramatic decrease of sex tourism in many destinations.  

Positive and negative impacts of sex tourism

Thailand, just like many other countries has serious problems regarding sex tourism. However, it has been noticed to be a much bigger problem in Thailand than anywhere else since the sex services seem easy accessible. Thai sex tourism has become an attraction on its own with red light districts being promoted and recommended in several guidebooks. Even though Thailand’s main source of income comes from sex tourists; Tourism Authority Thailand is still against these businesses mainly because many of the providers of sex tourism have been working these jobs from a very young and unacceptable age.

Lately, younger girls are being used more and more because it is believed that because they are so young they have no sexually transmitted diseases. Clients also find these young children attractive because of their innocence and their vulnerability, which is a horrible but true thought of many pimps that keep hiring these young girls.

So, what are the positive and negative impacts of Thai sex tourism? A big negative impact on Thailand’s tourism industry is the incurable disease, AIDS. Sex tourists have been discouraged to visit Thailand because of the high amount of people with AIDS.  Thailand is promoted as the sex capital of the world and many people come to the country because of this promotion. However, this brings the danger of AIDS and a higher transmission of this other transmitted diseases from sources that come from Thailand itself but also from many other countries.  Of course sex tourism is not the only reason for AIDS spreading through the country this fast, but it is the main reason. The Thai government has not done a lot for this enormous health crisis. The only promotion on trying to prevent this disease was telling everyone to use condoms.

Another impact is that the image of Thailand as a destination; it is often seen as a paradise for Thai sex tourism because this is what it has been promoted as for numerous years. Due to this image people, the wrong people keep on getting attracted to the destinations, making it hard or even impossible to change their ways.

Blue and yellow tuk tuk in the rain in Bangkok, Thailand.

Many things can be said about sex tourism, but one positive thing did come out of it. Because of this kind of tourism, normal tourism also started growing. Thailand got more attention in the media, not just because of sex tourism, but also because of its natural attractions. Tourism grew rapidly and the economy grew with it. Much of this is because of sex tourism and the popularity it has with its visitors. 

Sex tourism in Thailand statistics

Employment opportunities have also grown because of this, businesses like restaurants, bars, hotels and massage parlours need people to work for them, many of the people working in these places also work in sex tourism, but, hopefully, in a few years, this will start changing to just one regular job. The sex tourists do not hole up into their hotel for their stay; they also visit other facilities at their destination. They usually spend quite some money which will help other Thai people that don’t work in sex tourism to earn more as well.

When asking sex workers what another positive impact is of the job we get the unique answer of ‘a better life’. What is seen as another major sex tourism in Thailand statistic is the massive boom in sex industry workers marrying their clients that come from the more developed and rich western countries. After marriage, these sex workers often have a free entrance (visa) into that country and a way out of the life they have been living so far. Those Thai women don’t marry for love, but for a visa and earn entrance to this country not only for themselves but also for any children they might have and an easier access for their other family members.

The last few years Thailand has been trying to get rid of the brand ‘sex tourism center’ by promoting the country as more of a family tourism destination. They for example promote other activities such as parasailing, bicycling, elephant riding, canoeing and rafting. Even after the law made in 1960 change is still needed, because the sex industry now work illegal, they have to be more careful but the growth is still there and many sex tourists still visit the country every day. The Thai authorities have been working towards two different approaches for sexual crimes. Number one is to make a stricter framework that legally tackles different elements that have to do with sex crimes such as trafficking, prostitution and sex with minors. The other approach is to work together with civil society groups and local communities to protect and identify the victims so that they can be helped.

Even though, a lot of progress has been made over the years; improvement is still needed especially in terms of prosecution and enforcement. NGO’s have been trying to restart projects having to do with sex tourism with the Thai government but have been unsuccessful. The Thai government main focus right now is on promoting the economy and tourism. They made this choice even though a high number of high profile arrests of different foreign pedophiles have been made in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Many of the NGO workers are very disappointed in the choice the government has taken. 

Sex tourism is viewed as a problem that takes place in a country, it is being said to be an issue for developing countries or a woman’s issue. No one says it is a problem that has to be addressed to the countries that supply the sex tourists. A different view on this problem is to look at it as if a constant demand from sex tourists.  Even though policies over the years have been made, Thailand is powerless because of the continuous demand for sex tourism. It is believed that when the demand stops the supply of women will also stop. A minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1999 said “The Thai government does not and will not condone sex tourism.  Although sex tours may bring in some foreign currencies, they are against all the moral principles we believe in.  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.  Thus, demand from foreign male tourists are the cause of the problem, and it should be dealt with in the countries that supply sex tourists”. 

What we know is that the government did set up certain rules to try to regulate sex tourism in Thailand, but the rules are not as black and white as they should be. Thai officials often keep a blind eye when noticing sex tourism, this could be explained by the fact that those officials probably have family working in tourism and earn money from tourists. I do not think these rules will help, sex tourism will stay. What is said earlier is definitely true, where there is demand, people will provide. Going to the source of the problem, the home of the sex tourists is something that should have been done a lot earlier in history. Now this problem is out of control and is almost impossible to regulate.

So what we can conclude..

Sex tourism will keep on existing as long as tourists keep on looking for sex holidays. I believe it will not ever stop, the government always puts its priority elsewhere, even though it sees its country crumble under the diseases sex tourism brings with it. Yes, sex tourism is illegal and the situation for the Thai has improved; because almost no children are being used and trafficking has decreased in the last years. However, changing a whole country takes time, and as long as not everyone agrees to this plan and starts working with the officials, change will never come. 

Thailand knows what is happening in its country. They keep a blind eye and act like the situation is improving, but in reality the situation is the same and the impacts sex tourism makes stay the same or are worse. The sad reality is that everything has become ‘normal’, the Thai people do not find it a shame or weird that women and men work in the sex industry. It is sad that many of the younger women don not marry for love, but the fact is that they do everything willingly and are almost never forced. They are not forced to have sex with these tourists, they are not forced to start a relationship and no one forces them to marry these men. 

So, in the end are the impacts positive or negative? The answer stays unclear; sex tourism is a grey area in the tourism industry. Officials cannot help because the government doesn’t stand behind them; the locals are helpless because of the demand that keeps on coming their way and their need to survive.

Do you think there is a solution, should the government of Thailand do more or do we need changes and laws in the countries that the sex tourists originate from?

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17 Responses

  1. Amanda Connolly
    | Reply

    Great article on an important subject! Very well written and I like how you talk about both sides of the subject. Keep it up!

  2. Sarah from Tales From a Fork
    | Reply

    Thanks for bringing more light to this issue. I’ve watched documentaries on it, but always good to bring more attention to it.

  3. Zascha
    | Reply

    Very interesting topic. I knew it was going on but I wasn’t aware how big of an issue it was. I’m sure it happens many other places as well, but yeah, especially in Thailand.

  4. Amandas_Wanderlust
    | Reply

    Thanks for raising this important issue. A very well thought out piece.

  5. Naomi
    | Reply

    Difficult subject but well tackled. I guess because it’s such a million dollar industry, it will be difficult to force laws upon it and breaking the vicious circle.

  6. postgradandpostcards
    | Reply

    This is a very important topic as avid travelers must always know what they are contributing to… definitely a rough subject to talk about so kudos to you.

  7. Jo
    | Reply

    Great article. I would like to think of it as two sides of a coin and don’t really condemn people making a living out of it .Also, its true where there is demand, there will always be a supply. So its a never ending circle.

  8. Cosmic Duck
    | Reply

    So interesting! The sights I saw in Patong were very disturbing. When I lived in Kenya, it was common to see older, European women with young ‘beach boys’. It’s something that should be discussed more!

  9. Gabby
    | Reply

    Very important topic, and definitely a subject that needs awareness. Very well written article!

  10. Brenda
    | Reply

    Wow! thanks for this amazing post!
    I must say I know a little about this topic, but when I was in Norway I heard that the law for marrying foreigners over there was changed because of the amount of men marrying Thai women and bringing them to the country. It was the first time I heard about something related to Thai sex tourism and their consequences. It is definitely still going on, but now the process to legalize your status over there is way more difficult than a few years ago.

    Definitely, the countries that are promoting sex tourism in Thailand (being Norway once of the first because of high income and lots of depression!) are the ones who have to take control of the situation, but maybe the problem is not exactly on the marriage laws. This problem begins a lot earlier.

  11. Shobha
    | Reply

    Wonderful article! thank you for putting some clarity to something I knew vaguely about. I was uncomfortable in Thailand (have been 3 times) because I thought it was sex tourism I was seeing. However, you can never be sure. I’m an Indian married to a Brit (and I’d hate for people who saw us together to make snap judgments). I’ve been in no rush to head back to Thailand with my kids precisely because I do wonder what I’ll say to them if they ask questions. They are tweens and very vocal/judgmental (‘she’s so pretty mummy, why is she with that ugly guy?’).

  12. Mimi_90
    | Reply

    I remember being surprised when I was in Bangkok and I was seeing SOOO MANY these tourists with women and people telling me what was going on! Great post!!

  13. Elaine J. Masters
    | Reply

    Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful post. I think saying that sex workers are doing so willingly is not always true. They may say, yes but it is often with pressure from family members to help support the family. There are many forms of coercion. I am glad to hear you say that sex with minors is finished. I hope that is true. Good work.

  14. Lulu26
    | Reply

    Great essay and it’s certainly a subject that should be talked about more! (Perhaps if you plan to publish this piece in a magazine or any other publication it would be interesting to interview locals from Thailand and their perspectives).

    • anne030890
      | Reply

      Thank you so much for the comment! I’ll be going to Thailand in about 4 weeks, was planning on looking into it a little bit more. However in Thailand losing face is apparently the worst thing that could happen to you. I guess talking about this subject is therefore a no go.. We’ll see maybe I’ll get an opportunity!

  15. Faustina Mensah
    | Reply

    Hi there! It is very well written, but it would have been nice if you referenced it. I don’t think so, but you could just make up all the facts and figures and we won’t be able to check or to see if your knowledge on empirical facts! Good job though <3

  16. Jason Bradey
    | Reply

    Great article. Not sure if this article forum is still active….
    at the end of the day- money talks and bulshit walks. They got the flavour of money in there mouth. And now it will never be enough..,thai officials…Actions speak louder then words. And everyone has androids and rental therapy habits to maintain? We are all the same… we need money to live but how much does one actually need-“up to you” lol . It’s sad that thailand has become this way as I spend many vacations here…and country has more to offer…
    35 million visitors last year… an increase every year. They will never make enough. I think the poor people in country side seem the happiest rather than tourist destinations… oh well it is what it is… I pray for change but protistution is unfortunately oldest trade…

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