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Bangkok Post
EDITORIAL: Promotion of sex tourism
October 16, 2012

Last week's extraordinary warning to Malaysian men about travelling to Thailand went largely unnoticed. It came from authorities in Perak state, not from the central government. It did not mention the violence in the deep South. Rather, the caution was that men were increasingly returning from the deep South with HIV infections. It reminded would-be tourists bound for Thailand that precautions are available and probably necessary.

Thailand hosts more than 2 million Malaysians a year - many of them satisfied, repeat visitors. The vast majority of Malaysian tourists cross the land border in the Thai South. Few venture more than 50 kilometres from the border - the distance to Hat Yai city in Songkhla province. And they don't visit Thailand for the Buddhist culture or the Thai food.

To most Thais, destinations like Sadao, Betong and Sungai Kolok bring up images of recent history, the Muslim South and shopping. To those Malaysian men targetted by the recent travel warning, the mention of these Thailand destinations brings up entirely different images. Most of the potential Malaysian visitors to the Thai border region think of liquor, discos and - especially - women.

The dirty little secret of the Thai tourism industry is that somewhere near 10% of tourists enter the southern part of the country for the exclusive purpose of obtaining illicit and illegal sex. This does not count other well-known destinations catering to the same sort of visitor.

But the deep South of Thailand is a unique case in the notorious vacillation of Thai authorities and people over the country's reputation as nothing but a sex paradise. In the southernmost part of the country, virtually all visitors are from a unique place. And Thailand - first and foremost the Tourism Authority of Thailand - is pandering to such visitors, and even encouraging them.

The dichotomy in the Thai South is deep and in some ways indicative of the divisions between that troubled region and the rest of Thailand. The bottom line is that the people of the South have campaigned and worked for years to get rid of both the image and sex tourism itself.

The central authorities have been far more ambivalent. The TAT, for example, still has a wink-and-nudge attitude that makes clear to sex tourists that they are welcome.

More than a decade ago, authorities in Hat Yai city of Songkhla province decided they had had enough. Sex tourism had almost consumed the region's major town. Pimps and prostitutes took over many pavements and streets. Merchants, citizens and local authorities decided to fight them. They were successful, and Hat Yai today is much more of a clean, commercial city.

So the sex industry moved further south, and today is camped in the smaller, less defensible region of Danok, in Sadao district. In one way, it is out of sight and out of mind. In another, it blots the reputation and aims of the deep South and indeed the country. Yet the TAT brags that "the food and night life [are] great" in Betong, Sadao and other such southern towns.

It's easy to sympathise with tourist authorities, whose job success is measured exclusively by the number of visitors - not quality. It is easier, however, to sympathise with the women tricked or forced into the trade, the vast majority of decent southerners who detest the sex trade, and the image of their region.

Perak state is correct. If the only reason for coming to Thailand is illicit sex, Malaysian men should consider staying home.