To start with the quote of the day. In response to a question asked in an interview with the Reuters news agency regarding the role the country’s sex industry played in drawing visitors to Thailand, Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul (note: the minister is a woman) was in complete denial and replied without hesitating:
Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture.
That’s obviously a naive assumption at best. But what is more, she issues an open threat:
We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone.
Wow. In other words, she wants to rid Thailand of its long-established sex industry which, surprise surprise, still largely caters to Thai males, not Western so-called sex tourists.
Because in fact, prostitution – in spite of not being “strictly legal” – has a lively and longer tradition in Thailand than modern-day mass or “sex” tourism and is deeply ingrained in its culture.
If the tourism minister was indeed successful with her foredoomed anti-vice campaign it’s Thai men who would go to the barricades first. Or let’s rather say, Thais would harness their creative talent in order to bypass any restrictive new rules that pose a threat to their accustomed way of life. Easy as that.
So let’s face it, her goal is simply unrealistic. But is it even desirable?
While there are no official estimates regarding the share of the country’s tourism revenue that comes from sex tourists and the sex industry, the Thai director of an NGO working with sex workers is quoted by Reuters as saying:
There’s no denying this industry generates a lot of income.
In fact, according to unofficial estimates, Thai sex workers actually fuel the country’s rural economy and send an annual average of 300 million US dollars to family members in the provinces.
Another NGO worker is quoted by Reuters as saying:
Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income.
That’s a no-brainer. Also (that’s an important point):
If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support sex workers.
A former sex worker herself is finally quoted as saying the obvious:
No one wants to work in this business, but it’s fast and easy money.
In other words, what Thailand rather needs than a crackdown on the sex industry (which being a minister and member of the cabinet, is easy to call for and will please the country’s conservative elites) is a crackdown on the root cause of prostitution – which is poverty and lack of economic opportunities.
So what’s the sex industry in Pattaya really in for?
Last month, a couple of big body massage parlours in Bangkok and Pattaya were raided. Along the lines of a crackdown on human trafficking (Thailand is being put under a lot of pressure also by the United States), the raids targeted venues allegedly employing underage girls and illegal migrants. Only one venue in the capital was found to flout the law and shut down temporarily.
More recently, a massage parlour or spa in Bangkok’s Silom area was raided and shut down for offering a few non-standard “extras” provided by “provocatively” dressed ladies who didn’t even have massage training.
The raid came ahead of stricter new regulations for massage parlours and spas expected to go into effect in late September. Health ministry officials have warned they would be cracking down on massage parlours without proper licenses and venues operating in contravention of what is stated on their license.
In other words, any “extra” services other than a proper massage (the sheer presence of condoms and lubricants might be used as evidence?) could land the establishments in serious trouble. Having said that, so far that’s only sabre-rattling.
In practice, we don’t expect much of the tourism minister’s longed-for crackdown on the country’s multi-billion-dollar sex industry. Not only is the industry “so entrenched”, as Reuters put it, and “provides pay-offs to untold numbers of officials and policemen,” it’s also a major source of income for the tourism industry on one hand and sex workers and their families on the other hand.
As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if is, then provide the legions of sex workers (according to estimates, there are 250,000 in Thailand) with genuine alternatives to make a living.
Finally, if Thai tourism authorities are really sincere and wish to lure more “quality tourists” to the country who come here purely for the beautiful beaches and myriad of cultural attractions, well, obviously a lot remains to be done – especially here in Pattaya.
Last but not least: What’s your opinion regarding the tourism minister’s bold assumption that “tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing [sex]” but exclusively “for our beautiful culture”? Your feedback, as usual, is most welcome.