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Tourism is the largest economic activity in the world that involves multiple actors who play different roles in the industry. Urry (2002, p.2) states that tourism can play an integral role in the economic development of a country. Through this activity, countries are able to earn foreign income and create new employment opportunities for their citizens. One subset of tourism that has received significant interest from researchers is sex tourism.
This paper will engage in concise yet informative research on sex tourism. The paper will define this subset of tourism and highlight the major drivers for the industry. The paper will focus on Thailand, a country that is renowned for its thriving sex tourism sector. The significant benefits and demerits of sex tourism will be highlighted in order to show that this industry brings about financial and societal costs to the countries that allow it.
Brief Overview of Sex Tourism
Tourism is a major industry that involves traveling to new places for holiday purposes. Urry (2002, p.2) defines tourism as a leisure activity that is characterized by traveling to a new destination and staying in the new place or places for enjoyment purposes.
Tourism contributes significantly to the world economy with the World Tourism Organization (2014), placing its contribution at 9% of the world GDP. This industry is growing, and Laing and Crouch (2011, p.1516) state that increasing numbers of people across the globe are engaging in tourism. The tourism industry employs a large number of people, both directly and indirectly.
Sex tourism is one subset of tourism that continues to thrive on a global scale. By definition, sex tourism refers to “tourists who travel to other countries, specifically to purchase the sexual services of local women and men” (Nuttavuthisit, 2007, p. 23). Over the past few decades, the sex tourism industry has diversified beyond its traditional patriarchal form of exploitation and leisure with Garrick (2005, p.497) documenting that sex tourism is no longer restricted to Western men traveling to have sex with Third World women. The industry has expanded to include Western females engaging in commercial sex with Third World men and even gay sex tourism.
A major aspect of sex tourism is the commoditization of the bodies of the participants in the destination country. Pettman (2007, p.94) states that in sex tourism, the bodies of women, children, and young men become commoditized. The tourists are the buyers who choose the person they want, and for a price, they are provided with sexual services. Sex tourism has become prevalent, especially in South-East Asia and some African countries which are visited by about 3.5 million sex tourists annually (Xavier, 2004, p.542).
In spite of the prevalence of sex tourism, few travelers are willing to identify with the label of “sex tourist.” Garrick (2005, p.498) explains that many sex tourists are unwilling to identify with this label due to the negative stigmas associated with it, such as being called exploiters or dirty old men.
Child Sex Tourism
A more sinister aspect of sex tourism is that it sometimes involved children. Montgomery (2008, p.904) notes that while the morality of adult prostitution is open to debate, child sex tourism is found objectionable by a large segment of the global population. Unlike other aspects of sex tourism, child sex tourism is classified as a national or international crime by UNICEF and the Interpol (Xavier, 2004, p.542).
While adult prostitution is legal in some countries, tourism for the purpose of sexual relationship with a minor is a crime (Tepelus, 2008, p.103). A report by the children’s charity Save the Children indicates that 3.5 million individuals travel to Africa, Southeast Asia, and eastern Europe for the express reason of finding children to have sex with (Xavier, 2004, p.542). Asia has the largest numbers of child prostitutes with countries such as Thailand having 800,000 child prostitutes while India has 600,000 (Tepelus, 2008, p.104).
Tourists are attracted to children since there is a misconception that children are likely to be free from sexually transmitted infections. In addition to this, some sex tourists have a history of abusing children in their home country, and they therefore specifically target children in the tourist destination (Tepelus, 2008, p.104). Children between 3 and 17 years are exploited by sex tourists who mainly come from France, Italy, and Germany.
The situation of child exploitation by sex tourists is made worse by the fact that in some countries, the legal age of consent is 12 years old. A tourist can therefore legally have sex with a child in such countries. It is estimated that sex tourists are exploiting 2 million children from all over the world each year. This number is a modest estimation since the true scale of sexual exploited is difficult to quantify since, as Xavier (2004, p.542) observes, cases of child exploitation are rarely reported by most governments.
Drivers for Sex Tourism
A number of significant factors fuel sex tourism all over the world. To begin with, there is the desire of many Western men to have sex with women of different races to theirs as noted by Garrick (2005, p.499) who documents that there is a popularization of interracial sexual encounters due to the erotic idealization by the tourists. Many individuals have an erotic view of the culture other than their own. This view is in part encouraged by tourism advertisements, which represent the natives as exotic.
Garrick (2005) declares that the sex tourism industry thrives upon “the eroticization of the cultural Other and racist stereotypes towards Third World women who represent the ‘exotic’ Other are used as marketing tools” (p. 499). Pettman (2007, p.96) confirms that many hosting nations entice tourists by presenting their women as part of the tourist attraction of the country.
Laing and Crouch (2011, p.1527) note that many tourists are attracted to the “exotic” that the new destination offers. While this exotic mostly refers to culture and natural sceneries, it sometimes extends to the people in a foreign destination.
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Racism also contributes to the development of sex tourism. Deeply racist notions enable tourists from Western nations to rationalize their sexual activities with Third World women. Normally, involvement in commercial sex with women from economically less fortunate nations might lead to guilty feelings by the client. However, racist notions by the tourist enable himself to view the commercial sex workers from the foreign country as racially inferior.
The guilt that should accompany having sex with these Third World women is therefore decreased due to the race of the prostitutes. Garrick (2005, p.499) notes that racism has actually bolstered incidences of Western men engaging in commercial sex with minority women.
The submissive nature of women in the host nation also promotes sex tourism. Most sex workers assume a servile role, and they serve the Western in any way in exchange for money. According to Garrick (2005, p.500), the submissive role of the sex workers is in sharp contrast to the assertive nature of many Western women.
Garrick (2005, p.500) states that sex tourism provides an opportunity for many Western men to regain their “patriarchal rights” to women’s bodies. Most female prostitutes in Third World nations do not demand anything from Western males except for the provision of money. Their perceived lack of autonomy and assertiveness is attractive to many men who seek to reassert their masculinity.
The act of traveling also appears to encourage sex tourism among some individuals. When a person travels, he leaves a familiar place and experiences a new destination. In this new destination, some people feel that they can engage in activities that they would otherwise suppress in a familiar place.
In addition to this, traveling creates distance between the tourist’s home country and the vacation location. Garrick (2005, p.502) notes that when a person travels to a new location, he/she experiences anonymity in the new location. The tourist is not known by others in a foreign place. This facilitates the ease with which tourists can engage in sex with local prostitutes.
Benefits of Sex Tourism
In spite of the negative perception of sex tourism, it is a major source of income for some countries. Many Third World countries that have a thriving tourism industry get significant income from sex tourists. A substantial number of tourists travel with the intention of obtaining sex in their holiday destination. For this reason, some countries are able to enjoy the booming tourism business due to the sex industry. In this way, sexual labor becomes a means through which the country can earn foreign exchange.
Nuttavuthisit (2007, p.23) notes that because of the high revenue obtained from this sector, some countries actually try to promote the business. For example, in Thailand, the tourism sex industry is an organized business with bars and brothels set up explicitly to serve the demands of sex tourists. The economic role of sex tourism in many Third World countries is significant, and since little has been done to inhibit sex tourism, it can be expected to remain high in future years.
Sex tourism acts as a source of employment for many individuals in some countries, particularly those coming from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. In Thailand, a country that is a favorite destination for many sex tourists, it is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 sex workers.
Nuttavuthisit (2007, p.23) notes that many people who work in this industry are attracted to the business since it provides an easy way to earn money using one’s body. For most people who participate in this business, the only alternatives would be low paying and hard jobs such as domestic work or physical labor.
Demerits of Sex Tourism
Thailand is one country that is struggling to deal with the negative image of sex tourism. Thailand’s sex industry has become a prominent tourist attraction for the country, leading to some guidebooks explicitly recommending red-light districts that tourists visiting the country can go to obtain sex services.
Nuttavuthisit (2007, p.21) notes that while the country offers many impressive tourist attractions such as captivating natural beauty and local hospitality, sadly Thailand is best known for the thriving sex tourism industry. In spite of numerous attempts by the country to rebrand itself, many people continue to regard Thailand as the sex destination.
The ability of the country to attract many tourists from all over the world is hampered by this negative stereotype of Thailand as the sex tourism destination of choice. In a survey carried out by Nuttavuthisit (2007, p.24) to gauge the view held by foreigners about Thailand, 60% of the surveyed tourists express a dislike of the country due to the sex industry. The country, therefore, suffers from a loss of tourists who would otherwise be willing to visit the country for its other tourist attractions.
The health of individuals who actively participate in sex tourism is often negatively affected. The prostitutes who provide services to the tourists often have sex with multiple partners each night. On the same note, tourists have been documented to have sex with multiple prostitutes during the course of their holidays (Garrick, 2005, p.503).
Having sex with multiple partners exposes the individual to a myriad of sexually transmitted diseases. As such, sex trade introduces the problems of sexually transmitted diseases in the host county. Infections such as HIV and AIDS are prevalent among commercial sex workers and their clients (Nuttavuthisit, 2007, p.23).
Sex tourism also promotes human trafficking activities. A report by Tepelus (2008, p.101) indicates that there is a demand for trafficked persons in the major destination countries for sex tourists. Women and children are the major victims of this trafficking that occurs to meet the demands of more prostitutes for the sex tourism industry. Trafficked individuals are preferred by brothel owners since they can be paid cheaply or even forced to work for free.
Significantly, there is a link between child sex tourism with trafficking in human beings. The UNICEF reports that about 1.2 million children are trafficked each year to participate in sex tourism (Tepelus, 2008, p.104).
This paper set out to discuss the sex tourism industry. It began by highlighting the importance of tourism. It then described sex tourism as they travel with the intention of having sexual relations with commercial sex workers in the destination country. Sex tourism is on the rise since it contributes to the economic well being of individuals in the host country.
The destination country is able to benefit from the foreign currency brought by the tourists. However, the industry has dire repercussions that include the tarnishing of the nation’s image and exposure to SDIs by the commercial sex workers. Considering this major negative consequences of sex tourism, governments should take steps to curb and eventually dismantle this detrimental industry.
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Laing, J. H., & Crouch, G. (2011). Frontier Tourism Retracing Mythic Journeys. Annals of Tourism Research, 38(4), 1516–1534,
Montgomery, H. (2008). Buying Innocence: child-sex tourists in Thailand. Third World Quarterly, 29(5), 903-917.
Nuttavuthisit, K. (2007). Branding Thailand: Correcting the negative image of sex tourism. Place Branding & Public Diplomacy, 3(1), 21-30.
Pettman, J. (2007). Body politics: international sex tourism. Third World Quarterly, 18(1), 93-108.
Tepelus, C. (2008). Social responsibility and innovation on trafficking and child sex tourism: Morphing of practice into sustainable tourism policies? Tourism & Hospitality Research, 8(2), 98-115.
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