Sex Tourism in Thailand: A Vicious Cycle

Merieleen Engtipi
April 21, 2019


Travel and Tourism industry contributed to a global economy of over 7.6 trillion U.S. dollar in 2016, and it is one of the world’s largest industries. In Thailand, the travel and tourism industry has been a key economic growth driver and has contributed to 9.5% in GDP in 2017, with an expected growth of 7.8% in 2018 and 5.7% per annum rise from 2018-2028. Simultaneously, the number of tourists visiting Thailand has increased from 35.35 million in 2017 to 38.28 million in 2018.

It is one of the most desired destinations for tourists all over the world. She is blessed with scenic beauty, long stretches of blue water coastlines, tiny islands with sandy beaches, sporting water activities and beautiful resorts. Cultural heritage and historical relics have also drawn people from all over the world to Southeast Asia and Thailand.

However, Thailand is one of the victims of the tourism industry that has unintentionally harboured the growth of sex tourism, with proper infrastructural networks of airports, ports and roads, well-established hotel industry and favourable government policy. With globalisation, sex market in Thailand has evolved to cater to the need of global travellers. Travellers from all around the world come to Thailand to seek the pleasure and benefits of what the sex market has to offer.

Sex tourism, according to United Nations World Tourism Organization is “trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, with the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination.” Sex tourism is an economic activity, which is progressively global and interconnected. It involves prostitution, pornography, and human trafficking. Even though sex tourism has brought an increasing number of global travellers to Thailand, it has poorly impacted the image of the tourism industry of Thailand.

Sex Tourism has a vicious cycle that impacts health and has negative social and cultural consequences. It furthers socio-economic inequality, gender disparity and extreme insensitivity to human and child trafficking. Thailand has the highest percentage of HIV and AIDS population in the Indo-Pacific region. The HIV epidemic is concentrated on a certain key community: men engaging in sexual activity with other men, sex workers, the transgender and people abusing drugs. The tourist seeking pleasure in the country are from a different ethnicity, with varying values of family, and religious groups, engaging in a sexual fantasy in the country which is typically outside their comfort zone back at their home country. As for Thailand, it is not just a moral case of the sex workers but the youths who are affected by the realities of the existing practices. Buying and selling of ones’ body as a commodity also leads to certain abuses. Often underage girls are abused for the sexual satisfaction of clients both at domestic and international level. The emotional stress the sex workers undergo is beyond comprehension, and the multiple number of times the workers engage with their clients also gradually decreases their feeling of worth. These practices are justified by cultural and historical traditions of the concubines and even during the wars for the pleasures of the occupying forces engaging in leisure activities. The current society grows under the shadow of the old practices and so gets vindication for the continued practice.

Sex Tourism furthers exploits the status of women in society. As value exchange creeps in, the state of women is reduced to a commodity. With women working as a breadwinner for the family, they easily fall into the pit of the establish sex tourism industry. Migrant workers seeking jobs have also fallen prey to trading their bodies for cash to earn livelihood. Tourists looking for sexual pleasures in Thailand also come with individual preferences that include wild fantasies of child pornography, sex with a minor, virgin prostitute and sex slave, which leads to mounting number of crimes committed by the tourist and providers of the commodity, in most cases by the handler.

Stating that sex tourism and prostitution is part of Thai’s modern day culture downplays the other beautiful aspects of Thai Tourism industry. Though Sex tourism economically contributes to Thai society, it also brings forth problems of sexually transmitted disease, flourishing human trafficking business and demands for child pornography and trafficking that aggravate societal issues.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***