'Thailand is closed to sex trade', says country's first female tourism minister

Dancers performing around poles at a popular bar along Bangla road, Patong Beach. Photo / iStock
Dancers performing around poles at a popular bar along Bangla road, Patong Beach. Photo / iStock

Thailand's infamous sex industry is under fire, with the tourism minister pushing to rid the country of its ubiquitous brothels and a spate of police raids in recent weeks on some of Bangkok's largest establishments.

Those who work in the industry say curbs on commercial sex services would hurt a flagging economy that has struggled to recover after political turmoil took the country to the brink of recession in 2014.

Thailand is home to an extensive sex industry, largely catering to Thai men. Hordes of tourists also flock to the bright lights of go-go bars and massage parlours in Bangkok and main tourist towns.

The country's beaches and temples have been the advert for Asian tourism for decades and the country expects a record number of arrivals in 2016.

Tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul played down the role of the sex industry in drawing visitors.

"Tourists don't come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture," Kobkarn told Reuters.

"We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone," she said.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but the law is almost invariably ignored.

Experts say it will be hard to rid Thailand of an industry that is so entrenched and that provides pay-offs to untold numbers of officials and policemen.

Those trying to promote the welfare of sex workers say Kobkarn's goal is unrealistic.

Her push comes amid an attempt by the country's tourism authorities to transform Thailand into a luxury destination to attract moneyed tourists.

The military government is in denial about the proliferation of prostitution and its contribution to the economy and tourism, said Panomporn Utaisri, country director of NightLight, a Christian non-profit group that helps women in the sex trade to find alternative work.

"There's no denying this industry generates a lot of income," said Panomporn.

There are no government estimates of the value of Thailand's sex industry, or how much of the income from tourism comes from sex tourists.

However, there are about 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, according to a 2014 UNAIDS report, compared with 37,000 sex workers in neighbouring Cambodia.

Last month, police raided dozens of brothels in major cities in what they said was a routine operation.

Police said they were looking to prosecute venues employing underage and illegal migrant workers, but only one of the venues raided was shut down.

There was no link between the tourism minister's aim to rid Thailand of its sex tourism industry and the raids, a police spokesman said.

- AAP

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