Thailand’s Sex Tourism Scene Is About To Change Forever

Telegraph reports that the legendary red light scene that has become closely tied to tourism in Thailand is about to change and will never be the same again, thanks to a pledge made by Thailand’s first female tourism minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, in June.

Thailand is an absolutely huge tourist destination for international travelers. Delicious food, incredibly low local pricing, exotic locales, and easy immigration procedures all help Thailand to stay on the fringe of the tourism business. Another huge draw, and arguably the thing with which Thailand’s tourism has become most closely associated, is its technically illegal but largely unregulated pay-for-sex nightlife.

Depending on how you feel about that fact, it may or may not come as good news that all it is about to change.

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, the first-ever female to hold the office of Thailand’s tourism minister, was elected back in 2014. She set her sights on minimizing Thailand’s sex tourism reputation soon after she assumed the position, at first targeting Pattaya, Thailand’s immensely popular resort town, as an isolated test site for her project.

Her plan was to make Pattaya, and eventually all of Thailand, known for its scenery and rich culture rather than sleazy nightlife.

“We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone,” Kobkarn said recently.

Although Kobkarn’s idea was nice in theory, many Thailand residents agreed it was simply unrealistic.

According to The Daily Mail, there are about 123,530 people currently working in the sex industry in Thailand. The Sun recounts that the sex industry accounts for 10 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Experts say it would be a huge blow to Thailand’s economy, which is already recovering from a massive recession in 2014, if those jobs were to be shut down.

“There’s no denying this industry generates a lot of income,” says Panomporn Utaisri, director of a non-profit that helps female sex workers in Thailand to find more legitimate work.

“Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income.”

Kobkarn is not about to give up, though, a point that became abundantly clear in June, when a series of Thai brothels were raided. The Telegraph piece says that over 100 arrests — including 15 underage girls — were made in one Bangkok nightclub alone.

The spread of Kobkarn’s anti-prostitution campaign to Bangkok, Thailand’s biggest city, could very well mean huge things for the Thai red light industry, as the business and law enforcement climates in Bangkok tend to set the tone for Thailand at large.

Unfortunately, points out The Daily Mail, Thailand’s government and Kobkarn herself seem to be focusing a lot of energy on denying the roots of the issues run as deep as they do and that elimination of Thailand’s sex industry may very well necessitate a radical restructuring of Thailand’s economy from the ground up.

“Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture,” Kobkarn told the press.

It could be that her exact meaning was lost in translation, but it sounds like she is trying to deny Thailand has a huge prostitution proliferation issue to be dealt with and a deep-rooted reputation that will have to be combated even after any changes are made.

Meanwhile, points out the Sun piece, one cannot blame Thailand’s sex workers for taking advantage of the employment opportunity. In a single night, a Thai prostitute can earn about 5,000 Baht (equivalent to $143), which is almost 20 times Thailand’s minimum wage.

It seems very unlikely Kobkarn will give up her crusade against Thailand’s illegal sex work, but can she really fight an industry that has that much economic power. One thing’s for sure: Thailand’s tourists will be noticing changes in both the red light and law enforcement scenes. Whether or not those changes will help Kobkarn and Thailand’s government progress towards their goal is anyone’s guess.

[Photo by tbradford/Getty Images]