Notorious for its sex industry, Thailand has benefited from all the many tourists that come to Bangkok each year to experience the relatively cheap sexual services. This has created an indispensable source of revenue for Thailand’s economy and is the underlying factor of its recent prosperity. Since jobs and income are generated by tourism, which funds the sex trade, the Thai government actually supports the sex industry, although it is through indirect provisions (Boonchalaksi 1994: 17). In a report from the prime minister’s desk, tourism is praised for preserving traditional Thai customs, handicrafts, and occupations “which otherwise would have died out” (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 68). TAT, or the Tourist Authority of Thailand, also supports tourism and customs in the tourist industry, and works to attract foreigners through various appeals. One effort made by TAT to keep the tourist industry flourishing has been to downplay the numerous amounts of AIDS stories on the streets which might frighten tourists away (Boonchalaksi 1994: 16). In another approach to preserve tourism and consequently the sex industry, the Minister of the Interior Police allowed “entertainment places” in Bangkok to remain open later in the night, a gesture meant to extend a warm welcome to tourists. This tactic worked, for three years later 89% of the visitors to Bangkok were male tourists (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 66-67). Despite this statistic, local Thai men form the bulk of the sex clientele, not foreigners like many assume (The Global Hangover Guide: Thailand and the Sex Industry: 28 February 2004). Nevertheless, the tourist industry has an enormous influence on the government, due to the belief that commercial sex is the main attraction for tourists. With this perception, most politicians believe that “the sex industry should be at a minimum ignored and, in some cases supported, but not banned” (Boonchalaksi 1994: 16). However, if the government solely emphasizes the flesh aspects of its tourist industry, other segments of the tourist market could decline. As a result, Thai officials take an almost hypocritical approach to the situation: they deny the size and impact of the industry, although they consider it crucial for the government to pay for the tourist promotions marketed by the hotels, restaurants, and tour companies (Boonchalaksi 1994: 17-18).
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All facets of the tourist industry—such as hotels, airlines, travel agencies, etc.—represent the nation, culture, and people of Thailand. As a result, the advertisements promoting tourism in Bangkok are pressured to give off a certain aura and impression to the readers. Unlike other Third World countries where there are similar numbers of prostitutes, Thailand uniquely highlights the beauty of its women, their submissiveness, and their willingness to serve foreigners. This is intended to target the higher-quality tourist who can come visit with his family, but who can also return by himself to benefit from the sexual services when he is alone or on a business trip (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 71). Most advertisements published by the travel agencies explicitly promote sex as the main attraction to Bangkok, as women outnumber men four-to-one in advertising campaigns. It is not uncommon to view an advertisement which portrays a scantily clad Thai woman at the servitude of a white businessman (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 72). Here the goal is to express the hospitality and “friendliness” of the people, as well as to lure in Westerners with the exotic nature of sensuality that is not as prominent in Western culture.
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Funded by the government, the hotels, airlines, and tour companies all work together to maximize their revenue. Travel agencies will book airlines, which then book hotel rooms and car rentals. Some agencies even promote “mia chaw” (rented wife), for tourists spending several weeks in Bangkok who might get lonely or need special services. The companies also promote specially created sex tour packages, both for individuals and corporate business groups (Truong 1990: 127). Organized sex tours include round-trip airfare, hotel reservations, transportation, a local guide, sightseeing, and “as many lady companions as desired” during one’s stay (Gutner & Corben 1996: 46). Several hotels publicize that they are furnished with meeting rooms for “when nightlife spills into the workday” (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 74). In the same way, “rooms adjoin the bars for quick sex,” although “oral sex sometimes takes place in public view within the bar itself” (Manderson 1992: 455).
Catering to their guests, hotels have brochures available which provide information on the various sexual services offered and their costs (Truong 1990: 125). Since the prostitutes bring in customers for the hotels, and therefore extra money for the hotels, the prostitutes are disregarded and not run-off by the hotel managers. In high class hotels, the prostitutes will not be seen in the lobby; rather, the bellboys will solicit the guests, and if the guests are interested, the bellboys will send a CSW (commercial sex worker) up to the room. In lower class hotels, where prostitutes are not “personally employed” by the hotels, car rentals and taxis pull straight up to the room of the guest. These vehicles are equipped with curtains to provide the guest privacy and anonymity from the public (Boonchalaksi 1994: 44).
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There are several tourist attractions that hire sex workers in Bangkok. Brothels and tea houses cater towards the local Thai men, while bars, massage parlors, and nightclubs gear towards the Westerners and Japanese (Boonchalaksi 1994: 41). The brothels, or prostitute houses, are usually in worse conditions and offer older women, as local customers do not splurge as much money as the tourists (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 160). Thai citizens are also kept out of the sex shows. Prostitution, and therefore sex shows, is illegal in Bangkok; to ensure not being arrested by an undercover policeman, the owners of the sex shows will only allow foreigners into their clubs (Bishop & Robinson 1998: 180). Yet whether it is a brothel or a bar, many owners are revamping their venues into restaurants because restaurants can employ younger girls. It is a Thai belief that having sex with a virgin can cure venereal disease, and younger girls are also assumed to have a lesser chance of carrying AIDS (Mirkinson 1997: 32). Restaurants are the new trend in red-light districts such as Patpong and Nana Entertainment Plaza. In addition to waitresses and go-go dancers, several prostitutes work as golf caddies, hair dressers, salesgirls in department stores, and singers at the hotels.
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When bars first developed, hostesses only chatted with the customers. These women were called “partners” or “hour-sitting hostesses” (Boonchalaksi 1994: 48). However, the tables have turned and the role of a hostess is quite different from what it used to be. According to the Thai national government, hostesses and the rest of the skin trade in Bangkok have a positive effect on the developing economy. Tourism brings in more than four billion dollars each year to the Thai economy; the only problem is that “1 in every 5 Thai women aged between 13 and 29 is a sex worker” (The Global Hangover Guide: Thailand and the Sex Industry: 28 February 2004). Due to the desperate need for money and the many “jobs” that are created, the illegal forms of entertainment that dominate Bangkok’s nightlife are overlooked. Something needs to be done to break the dependent relationship between Bangkok’s sex industry and the tourist industries servicing the tourists from the West and Japan that patronize it. Unfortunately, this proves a difficult task, as it would put all the hotel chains, airlines, travel agencies, tour operators, and sex workers in an even greater economic struggle.
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