Sex tourism: When conscience takes a vacation

Red light districts are often tourist attractions, like here in Amsterdam. (DW photo)

A lot of travellers are looking for erotic adventures abroad — and are willing to pay for them. But many tourist destinations have shied away from addressing the issue.

When night falls on the Playa de Palma, Mallorca's most important vacation area, street prostitution comes to life. Women, most of whom come from Nigeria, publicly offer their services just a few hundred meters from the beach. Virtually all thier customers are vacationers.

"Tourists are clearly driving up the demand for prostitution on Mallorca," says Rocio Lopez from the aid organisation Medicos del Mundo, which aims to strenghten the rights of sex workers on the island. During the summer months, at the high of the tourist season, the number of prostitutes on Mallorca often doubles.

Red light districts become a tourist attraction

Experts emphasise that sex tourism is a very diverse phenomenon that exists in virtually every country in the world — it occurs on Mallorca, in the United States, the Dominican Republic and many other places.

"Sexual adventures are a real travel motive," says Antje Monshausen of Tourism Watch, a specialist unit of the aid organisation Bread for the World. "It's not for nothing that red light districts, such as in Amsterdam, are a tourist attraction." 

In Spain alone, prostitution is a billion-dollar business, with tens of thousands of women working as prostitutes nationwide. No one knows exactly how many, as 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 rampant than in Spain — worldwide, the country ranks third behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Tourism is likely to play a significant role in this context, as Mallorca shows.

Exploiting dependency 

"There's less social control, people drink alcohol, they let their hair down when they are on holiday," says Monshausen. After all, that's what many people want on vacation: to get away from the constraints of everyday life, to be free of conventions for a bit. "Especially in tourism, we are seeing a strong economic disparity between travelers and the local population. Exploiting the resulting dependency relationships is unethical," according to Monshausen.

This dependency become apparent when Mallorca police recently went after human traffickers controlling street prostitution on the Playa de Palma. They had brought the women into the country under a false pretext, and then forced them into prostitution to pay off debts amounting to tens of thousands of euros.  According to Medicos del Mundo, about 95% of all prostitutes in Spain are immigrants who do not have a residence permit — and thus cannot take up any regular work.

"That these women choose prostitution of their own free will is a myth," says Rocio Lopez. "Because for that to happen, they would have to have a choice."

Children are at greater 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, this is by no means just about pedophile offenders. 

"There is also a very, very large proportion of travellers without that inclination who become opportunistic offenders when they are enjoying a degree of anonymity abroad," she says.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hamann expects the problem to worsen. The economic situation in many families has deteriorated drastically in recent years, she says. And the pressure to generate an income is growing, she says. "Children are increasingly at risk as a result," she says.

In the tourism industry itself, awareness of the issue is now heightened. "But sexual exploitation is still an issue that many people don't want to address," says Hamann. "If it also involves minors, many would rather not deal with it at all."

Antje Monshausen of Tourism Watch 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 issue head-on," she says. No one wants to run the risk of being stigmatised as a sex tourism destination.

Hefty fines loom 

On Mallorca, too, prostitution is rarely discussed. Yet topless bars and other such establishments on the 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 the vacationers."

Soon, however, something fundamental could change. The Spanish central government is planning to tighten criminal law, so that in the future anyone who uses the services of prostitutes will have to expect a hefty fine.

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