Sex tourism in Pattaya: Is the party over?

Pattaya is something of a sex capital in Thailand. Source: Vassamon Anansukkasem/Shutterstock

“GOOD guys go to heaven, bad guys go to Pattaya” are the words of a popular slogan often found on billboards, trinkets, and souvenir T-shirts flogged to visitors in Pattaya, a tourist-packed resort city on Thailand’s eastern Gulf coast.

If this was indeed the case, then a significant portion of Thailand’s international visitors are “bad guys”; of the 33 million who visited the country last year, 13 million went to Pattaya, a city known for more than just its beaches.

Some might disagree but let’s call a spade a spade: many are drawn to the city for one thing – sex. Despite prostitution being illegal in Thailand, Pattaya has a reported 27,000 prostitutes – that’s roughly one for every five people living in the city.

Women selling sex for a living is nothing new to Thai society. It dates back to as far as 1680 during the Ayutthaya period, where prostitution was fully legal and there were even state-run brothels.

The sex trade was predominantly confined to the Bangkok area, but as soon as international soldiers started to descend on Pattaya, this became the new destination for sex workers. Pattaya became an R&R spot for US soldiers during the Vietnam War, and it has for years since remained a popular destination for pleasure-seeking tourists.

Sensational headlines about Pattaya have sparked the kingdom’s anger. Source: The Sun

Today, however, the Thai junta government no longer wants Pattaya’s image to be dictated by its racy history. Stung by foreign headlines branding it “the world’s sex capital” and the “modern-day Sodom and Gomorah” (British newspapers The Sun and The Daily Mirror are among the few publications said to have sparked the kingdom’s anger), Thailand has in recent months been trying to clean up the city’s image.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has vowed to crack down on illegal businesses and prostitution in Pattaya, viewing them as a major embarrassment for Thailand.

SEE ALSO: ‘Pink tourism’: Does Thailand deserve to be Asia’s LGBT capital?

On top of a series of raids on popular sex haunts, Prayuth’s administration rolled out a new policy called the “Happy Zone” in March as part of the city’s rebrand. The “Happy Zone”, enforced in the infamous Walking Street, is meant to keep illegal activities under lock and key, and to make sure the holiday experience in Pattaya is hassle-free for everyone.

“I want people to see that we are not like what they say. We are not allowing prostitution in these entertainment places,” provincial governor Pakkaratorn Teianchai was quoted in Bangkok Post as saying at the zone’s launch.

Neon lights outside a nightclub in the red light district of Pattaya. Source: jjspring/Shutterstock

But despite Thailand’s best efforts, some might argue the curtains have yet to close on Thailand’s sex tourism.

In fact, Pattaya’s sex industry has become something of an attraction in its own right for the millions of Chinese tourists who visit every year. And looking at arrival data, Thailand would do well to pay heed to the demands of the Chinese traveler market.

Chinese tourists make up a significant one in three visitors to Thailand. Tours packaged for the Chinese traveler often include guided walks through Walking Street, where they can pause to take pictures of the many Thai sex workers plying their trade there.

On top of that, although Thailand is taking steps to crack down on sex tourism in places like Pattaya, it seems the party is still very much in full swing on the Internet. A simple “Thailand sex tourism” search on Google will see you being inundated with various websites advertising Thailand and in particular, Pattaya, as a pleasure-seekers’ paradise.

One websit, in particular, offers a “guide to planning and costs” for travelers heading to Thailand purely for sex.

The website recommends Phuket and Pattaya as the “best” places to go for a “sex holiday” and gives a rough estimation of costs of things such as accommodation, food, entertainment, and even suggests how much money pleasure-seekers will spend on “lady drinks”.

The so-called guide also suggests checking out an escort booking platform dubbed “the Uber of getting laid”. The website allows users to live search hundreds of local escorts, as well as view their customer ratings and prices. Not only can you make an instant booking, there is also a GPS tracking option so you can track your date.

Despite government crackdowns, prostitution remains an economically vital industry that contributes to Thai tourism. Source: Christopher PB/Shutterstock

The challenge, it appears, in tackling sex tourism lies in the fact that despite prostitution being a highly-condemned trade, it remains an economically vital industry that contributes to Thai tourism. Bangkok Post recently reported that approximately 60 percent of Thailand’s national income comes from tourism, “mainly sex tourism.”

Many sex workers come from the impoverished northeast and see selling their bodies as a way out of poverty.

On top of that, it has also been said that sex tourism in Thailand is not merely driven by the commercial transaction between the tourist and the local sex worker, but also by corruption permeating the police force and other government agencies.

According to Thailand’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council (NESAC), massage parlour owners pay millions of pounds a year in police bribes.

So is it all over for sex tourism in Thailand? Far from it.