BANGKOK – Thailand’s infamous sex industry is under fire, with the Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul pushing to rid the country of its brothels, with police raids in recent weeks on some of the largest establishments providing sex services in Bangkok.
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.
However Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul told Reuters that people do not travel to Thailand for the sex industry. “They come here for our beautiful culture, we want Thailand to be about quality tourism”. We want the sex industry gone.”
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and deeply conservative, but 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 parlors in Bangkok and main tourist towns.
Although Thailand is mostly a conservative, Buddhist nation, its sex industry is widespread, serving mostly Thai men, the news service said. Prostitution is illegal in the country, but the law is mostly ignored.
According to Reuters, the country expects a record number of tourists in 2016. The beaches, temples, go-go bars and massage parlors of Thailand are all popular among tourists.
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.
The Tourism Minister’s push comes amid an attempt by the country’s authorities to transform Thailand into a luxury destination to attract moneyed tourists.
As the Thailand director of the Christian nonprofit organization NightLight, which works to get women out of prostitution, Panomporn Utaisri told Reuters that the government doesnâ€™t want to admit that prostitution contributes to the economy and tourism.
“There’s no denying this industry generates a lot of income,” Panomporn said.
There are about 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, according to a 2014 UNAIDS report, compared with 37,000 sex workers in neighboring Cambodia.
The tourism sector accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product and sex worker groups said the minister’s vision of a prostitution-free Thailand would dent that.
Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers in Group (SWING), which provides sex workers with free medical care and vocational training said, “Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income.”
Many sex workers come from the impoverished northeast and see selling their bodies as a way out of poverty.
One former sex worker from the northeastern province of Maha Sarakham, who declined to be identified, told Reuters she entered Bangkok’s sex trade at the age of 19 and earned up to 5,000 baht ($143.14) a night, nearly 20 times the minimum wage of 300 baht ($8.59) per day.
“No one wants to work in this business, but it’s fast and easy money,” she said.
NightLight and SWING said they would welcome the sex industry’s closure if the government had a plan to ensure that sex workers could support themselves without falling back into the business.
“If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support sex workers,” said Surang.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)