Sex tourism: When conscience takes a vacation | Travel DW | DW

When night falls on Playa de Palma, Mallorca’s most important resort area, street prostitution comes to life. Women, mostly from Nigeria, publicly offer their services a few hundred meters from the beach. Virtually all of their customers are vacationers. “Tourists are clearly increasing the demand for prostitution on Mallorca,” says Rocio Lopez of aid organization Medicos del Mundo, which aims to strengthen the rights of sex workers on the island. During the summer months, at the height of the tourist season, the number of prostitutes in Mallorca often doubles.

Palm tree with the sign announcing the Topless club in Mallorca

In Mallorca’s Playa de Palma, topless bars and similar establishments openly solicit customers

Red-light districts become a tourist attraction

Experts point out that sex tourism is a very diverse phenomenon that exists in virtually every country in the world – it occurs in Mallorca, the United States, the Dominican Republic and many other places. “Sexual adventures are a real reason for travelling,” says Antje Monshausen of Tourism Watch, a specialist unit of the aid organization Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World). “It’s not for nothing that red-light districts, like in Amsterdam, are a tourist attraction.”

Red light district of the Netherlands in Amsterdam

Two men pose for a photo in front of a popular landmark: the streets of Amsterdam’s Red Light District

In Spain alone, prostitution is a billion dollar business, with tens of thousands of women working as prostitutes across the country. Nobody knows exactly how much, because it is an activity that is not regulated by law. According to the Association for the Prevention, Reintegration and Care of Prostituted Women (APRAMP), nowhere in Europe is prostitution more endemic than in Spain – in the world the country ranks third behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Tourism is likely to play an important role in this context, as Majorca shows.

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Exploit addiction

“There’s less social control, people drink alcohol, they loosen up when they’re on vacation,” says Monshausen. After all, that’s what many people want on vacation: to get away from the constraints of everyday life, to break free from conventions. “Particularly in tourism, we see a strong economic disparity between travelers and locals. Exploiting the resulting dependency relationships is unethical,” according to Monshausen.

Nightlife in the Soi Cowboy red light district, Bangkok

Thailand is considered a major destination for sex tourism, with popular spots like the Soi Cowboy red light district in Bangkok.

This addiction became evident when Mallorca police recently prosecuted human traffickers controlling street prostitution on Playa de Palma. They had brought the women into the country under a false pretense and then forced them into prostitution to pay off debts amounting to tens of thousands of euros. According to Medicos del Mundo, around 95% of all prostitutes in Spain are immigrants who do not have a residence permit – and therefore cannot hold regular employment. “That these women choose prostitution of their own free will is a myth,” says Rocio Lopez. “Because for that to happen, they should have a choice.”

Children are more at risk

Sex tourism is a particularly big problem when it involves the exploitation of minors, as happens in many countries around the world. According to Josephine Hamann of the children’s charity ECPAT, it is by no means just about child sex offenders. “There’s also a very, very large proportion of travelers without this inclination who become opportunistic offenders when enjoying some degree of anonymity abroad,” she says. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hamann expects the problem to get worse. The economic situation of many families has deteriorated significantly in recent years, she says. And the pressure to generate an income is increasing, she says. “So children are increasingly at risk,” she says.

Within the tourism industry itself, awareness of the issue is now heightened. “But sexual exploitation is still an issue that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” says Hamann. “If it also involves minors, many would prefer not to deal with it at all.” Tourism Watch’s Antje Monshausen also sees a great need to make up for lost ground in this area. “Hardly any country, hardly any tourist destination wants to tackle the problem head-on,” she says. No one wants to run the risk of being stigmatized as a sex tourism destination.

Heavy fines loom

In Mallorca too, prostitution is rarely mentioned. Yet topless bars and similar establishments on Playa de Palma aggressively and openly solicit customers. The police limit themselves to occasionally monitoring prostitutes working on the street promenade. “There is still a lot of work to be done to raise awareness,” says Rocio Lopez of Medicos del Mundo. “Especially in relation to vacationers.” Soon, however, something fundamental may yet change. Spain’s central government plans to toughen criminal law, so in future anyone who uses the services of prostitutes will have to expect a hefty fine.

This article was originally written in German.

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