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The Importance Of Sex Tourism For Pattaya




In 1723, a Dutch philosopher, Bernard Mandeville, published a book which led to a huge scandal : The fable of the bees. In this book, subtitled Private Vices, Public Benefits, he argues that it is the vices – and not the virtues – of individuals that make a society rich, and thus stimulates progress. Although an individual primarily interested in his own pleasure is a « vicious » character, says Mandeville, « his spending will employ tailors, servants, perfumers, cooks, prostitutes », thus enriching the country, whereas a society of virtuous individuals « blessed with content and honesty » will fall into apathy. Mandeville raised ministers and writers against him, including philosophers and economists, who, according to the dogma of the time, saw virtue, mainly in the form of saving, as the basis of prosperity, and he was convicted as a nuisance by a grand jury. In a different way, the same debate goes on today about prostitution. Some see it as a stimulating economic activity, whereas others put the debate on the moral level, taking over almost the same arguments used against Mandeville. No doubt if Mandeville were still alive, he would add a chapter about Thailand and Pattaya to his book.

The Mandeville debate is still in vogue, and it also takes place in Thailand. A video showing foreign men learning Thai via sentences like « How much? » or « Is that for the whole night? » recently displeased Thai tourism authorities, leading them to reaffirm that they do not condone prostitution and human trafficking. The « Mandevillian » Thais, i.e., those who insist on the public benefits of prostitution, were – understandably – not heard in these circumstances. But they surely had an impact : the only visible action Thai authorities took was to ask the video to be removed (yet it is still online).

This parody also laid stress on Western prejudices against Thailand, which, in a way, create the reaction of denial of the prostitution problem from Thai authorities. Such prejudices, often embedded in jokes, as well as the Thai reaction of denial and concealment, tend to put out of sight the real problems regarding the sex market, and to hamper the production and the search of data. It is therefore difficult to estimate the importance of sex tourism in Thailand, be it in terms of numbers (of prostitutes and users), of spending (for sex and related activities), or, more generally, of tourists' behavior. Let's yet have a closer look.

One estimate, published in 2003, placed the total sex tourism spending in Thailand at US$ 2 billion per year (see Prospect Magazine, May 2005), but this number must have at least doubled by now. Other recent studies estimate that foreign tourists spending for sex around US$ 2 billion. This is in line with other studies showing that foreign spending for sex is approximately equal to local people's spending for sex. In other words, the current total of 4 billion is equally divided in 2 billion spending by foreigners – which are in fact Thai sex exports – and 2 billion by Thai nationals. These are not small numbers. As a matter of comparison, global rice export for 2012 was about 3 billion US$ (true, 2012 was a bad year). But the numbers concerning Thai sex exports are based on prostitution only, and do not account for total foreign spending related to sex, for example they do not include the hotel room, the restaurant, or the gifts to the girl or possibly to her family. Thus, to give a general figure, there are good reasons to surmise that total Thai sex exports were larger than total rice exports in 2012.

Now, considering that about US $ 25 billion are spent a year by foreign tourists in Thailand, that is 8% of total foreign spendings go to sex. But again, we are only talking here of sex as a direct consumption. Furthermore, this number does not account for the importance of the sex market, or its reputation, for attracting foreign tourists in Thailand. This is important because, if the average tourist allocates 8% of his/her (in fact it's almost totally his) total spendings in Thailand to prostitution, the prospect of having sex accounts for much more than 8% in his decision to come to Thailand. Thus, we have to distinguished sex tourism as estimated from sheer sex consumption, from sex tourism in the larger sense, i.e., tourism induced by prospects and fantasies concerning sexual relations. It is in this latter sense Thailand is in a very particular and advantageous position compared to other countries. The brand is well established.

Pattaya is in a particular situation, as its reputation is, more than Thailand at large, based on prospects and activities related to sex. Here again, it is difficult to have reliable numbers. The main difficulty is to measure sex tourism, first because the notion of sex tourism is ill-defined – it goes from the simple desire to meet a sex partner to the clear purpose of engaging in as many sex relations with prostitutes as possible –, and also because people don't register as sex tourists, and don't talk about this freely and sincerely. In a study made 8 years ago by researchers from the Asian University, sex tourism in Pattaya was estimated at 90% of male tourism, based on a moderate definition of sex tourism (Prof. Grubenmann: personal communication). Maybe this study, made in downtown Pattaya, overestimated sex tourism. Maybe sex tourism had a relative decrease in recent years, at the same time as numerous touristic attractions aimed at families have developed in the city and around.

Let's tackle the problem of the importance of sex tourism in Pattaya globally first, by considering the success of Pattaya as a tourist resort. In 2012 the city attracted 8 million tourists (or rather hotel stays), which makes Pattaya the largest sea resort in the world (see my blog : Pattaya now world's largest sea resort). Inevitably, the question is : what attracts people to Pattaya? To put things in perspective, Paris, the largest tourist city in the world, attracts 16 million tourists a year, the double of Pattaya. I may be prejudiced, but in my view, Paris has more than double the attractiveness of Pattaya. Venice attracts 10 million tourists ; here again, I can understand this number much better than Pattaya's. Of course, one could object that should only be compared what is comparable, so let's have a comparative look at sea resorts. There are a couple of large sea resorts in Europe (although smaller than Pattaya), like Benidorm, Torremolinos or Rimini. These resorts have developed with the expansion of mass tourism after the second world war, following the advent of paid leave. People went, and kept going there, mainly for the sea and the sun. Now the success of Pattaya needs another explanation : in Asia, the paid leave system is in its early development, and most Asians people don't like to stay in the sun and are not sea bathing fanatics either. Understand me well: I don't want to slighten the importance of attractions like the Floating Market, Nong Nooch Gardens, Underwater World and others, which draw many tourists. Yet, they are far from explaining the phenomenal success of Pattaya. Of course, one could argue that Pattaya – like other Asian resorts – started with foreign tourists, then grew out its success, people going where other people go. Surely people act like sheep, but not just like sheep. And to keep people coming back, you need a good reason for them to come back. Here again we need a better explanation. My point is that if you don't take sex tourism into account, you will simply not be able to explain why Pattaya attracts 8 million tourists. And if you are looking for such explanation, you will have to take sex tourism in a large sense in, to account.e., including the image of Pattaya as a sex hub.

The sex market image seems to be confirmed by a little Google search I did (with Chrome) about “sex” and “Pattaya”: I got 3.9 million results, whereas for Acapulco, the largest American sea resort, I got 2.9 million results. For Benidorm, the largest European sea resort, Google shows 2.1 million results. Taking “prostitution” instead of “sex”, the difference is even more marked: 1.1 million results for Pattaya, 454,000 for Acapulco, 135,000 for Benidorm. Of course such results do not reflect the reality, only the internauts' preoccupations, and the anticipations of them.

In the already mentioned 2005 article, the author, Alex Renton, notes that entrances in Thailand are not equally divided between males and females, that there are about 60% incoming male tourists for 40% of female tourists. Such a tourist gender gap is very unusual, possibly unique for a country. On the current 22 million foreign entries in Thailand in 2012, these 20%, excess of males makes about 4.4 million individuals, supposing the gender discrepancy has not changed. The author of the article goes on to make many hypotheses about what these 4.4 million men do in Thailand, to retain two : golf and sex, but after closer examination, considers only the latter. Of course, the question of whether the tourists' sex discrepancy is a good indicator of sex tourism can be discussed. I think it is an interesting one, mainly because I see no reason to discard it : male and female tourists may have different interests and activities, but why such a tourist gender discrepancy in Thailand and not in other countries? But it is, at least for Thailand, a minimal indicator, a lower limit: after all, sex tourism also exists in countries where the numbers of male and female tourists tend to be equal. Note that there are 12% more male tourists in Cuba, another well-known sex tourism destination. One can see, just by walking in the streets, that the sex discrepancy is bigger in Pattaya than in the rest of Thailand. But how bigger? I asked a dozen of hotel receptionists in the city, but they don't record the sex of the tourists. There estimates, in the more expensive hotels, is an average of 70% of male tourists. In the cheaper hotels, it is between 80% and 90%. If such numbers are reliable, it would mean that on the 8 million tourists in Pattaya (2012 numbers), around 6 million are sex tourists.

A point of statistical interpretation is in order here. I estimated above at 4.4 million the number of sex tourists in Thailand, and now I am talking of 6 million for Pattaya only. This is mainly due to 2 factors : First, the 4.4 million excess of male tourists, although an indicator of sex tourism, may lead to an underestimation, as we have just seen. Second, the 22 million tourists who arrived in Thailand in 2012 are foreigners; Thais are not counted as tourists (even if they just visit their country) in national statistics. In turn, in Pattaya, the 8 million tourists are in fact 8 million overnight stays, which include Thai nationals.

Although the sex market reputation diverts some people from coming to Pattaya, it is globally highly profitable for the city. The nice thing is that it is an asset that does not have to be advertised, as sex market reputation goes viral. Every businessperson would dream of a business that is advertised by its clients only. Pattaya officials are mainly interested in cleaning the reputation of the city, and advertise it as a family-friendly resort, a city of water sports, entertainment, shopping, dining, folkloric attractions, and mention the “vibrant” night life just in passing. Reading a Pattaya promotion leaflet is like reading the leaflet of any large sea resort. The city's tourism authorities are in the situation of the staff of the magazine Play Boy, which most readers bought for the pictures of the playmates, but which was officially advertised for its serious and “respectable” articles only. Such articles also gave readers an acceptable reason to buy the magazine.

The sex market image is less profitable to Thailand as a whole. The country suffers from a reputation as nb 1 sex market in the world. Yet, according to statistics, there are less prostitutes (relatively to population) in Thailand than in countries like Japan, India, or Germany, for example, and probably in many others. In other words, Thailand suffers from an undeserved reputation. Incidentally, I believe one of the reasons why Thailand is seen to be in such prominent position is due to the fact that prostitution is very visible, mostly taking place in open air bars, whereas in most other countries, even in SE Asia, it tends to be hidden. Anyway, undeserved reputations always create chagrin, bitterness, and misunderstandings. Thais resent this reputation, although they understand that it is particularly repulsive for Westerners, where prostitutes are considered as victims, and associated to human trafficking and forced labour. They react by condemning publicly prostitution, as they did after the video mentioned above, but regret in private that Westerners have such Lilliputian abilities to understand traditional societies, and Thai culture in particular. Thai authorities are in a similar situation, relatively speaking, to the Swiss authorities with secret bank accounts : many customers are happy to use them, but most concerned foreign institutions condemn such accounts. The Swiss, who have a solid reputation in the business, complain that their legal system is not well understood, they point out some other countries that also hide private money, and, of course, are very careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. And like the Thais, the Swiss are learning that when everybody is against you, the only thing you can do is to arch your back.

When we talk about prostitution or sex hubs, we need a comparative perspective, otherwise we may give the impression that Pattaya is a total exception. Cities like Havana, Mumbay, Pune, Beijing, Las Vegas, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, and others, are also important prostitution hubs, and Pattaya is surely not the most important one. In turn, Pattaya is the sea resort that harbors the largest sex market. For some reason, sea resorts have a specific tendency to develop this activity, particularly in the Americas. NGOs concerned with prostitution have often accused the authorities of sea resorts like Copacabana, Fortaleza (Brazil), Cartagena, Barranquilla (Colombia), Maracaibo, Margarita (Venezuela), or Tijuana or Acapulco (Mexico), to encourage sex tourism in their city. Recently, the Mayor of Constanta (Romania) has expressed the necessity to promote the city in Arab countries, « through parties and beautiful girls ». No doubt this man is looking towards Pattaya with envy. Considering that prostitution emerges out of (1) poverty, and/or (2) a social tolerance or acceptance of it (sometimes itself linked to poverty), many African countries meet these 2 conditions. Sex tourism in sea resorts like Marrakech (Morocco), Hammamet (Tunisia), Cape Town (South Africa), Saly (Senegal), Mombasa (Kenya), Kribi (Cameroun), or Banjul (Gambia), is fast developing. Pattaya is not unique in its kind, although it is the “leader” in its market. The closest competitor is probably Patong, but it is a soft competitor since tourists can visit both resorts during their stay in Thailand. No worries for Pattaya for the moment; but Pattaya tourism authorities should remember that leaders – especially in a fragile activity – do not last long. They are just a part of a cycle.




Stickman's thoughts:

A quick Google search shows that the top 4 nationalities visiting Pattaya are Thais, Russians, Chinese and Taiwanese. These 4 nationalities account for 60% of all visitors to Pattaya and I bet the percentage of sex tourists amongst them is very small i.e. not even 1%!

Whenever I fly to or from Bangkok internationally, the number of single men, or groups of men who appear to be single and who *may* end up in the bars is very low. How many on a plane? Very few!

Yes, sex tourism brings economic benefits, but its importance is overstated by sex tourists who often attempt to justify their own behaviour by talking up the economic benefits. In Pattaya today the number of "regular" or "mainstream" i.e. non sex far exceeds the number of sex tourists and sex tourism is becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of total tourism every year.

Thailand is doing well economically, the economy has experienced huge growth over the last 30 years and as the tourism market matures so sex tourism becomes a smaller part of the total tourism market.