BANGKOK • Thailand's infamous sex industry is under fire, with the tourism minister pushing to rid the country of brothels and police carrying out a spate of raids in recent weeks on some of the largest establishments providing sex services in Bangkok.
Those who work in the industry say curbs on commercial sex services would hurt a flagging economy that has struggled to recover after political turmoil took the country to the brink of recession in 2014.
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and deeply conservative, but is home to an extensive sex industry, largely catering to Thai men. Many tourists also flock to go-go bars and massage parlours in Bangkok and other tourist towns.
Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul has played down the role of the sex industry in drawing visitors. "Tourists don't come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture," Ms Kobkarn told Reuters.
Thailand's beaches and temples have been the poster child for Asian tourism for decades and it expects a record number of arrivals this year. "We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone," said Ms Kobkarn.
We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone.
TOURISM MINISTER KOBKARN WATTANAVRANGKUL
If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support the sex workers.
MS SURANG JANYAM, director of Service Workers in Group (Swing), which provides sex workers with free medical care and vocational training.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but the law is almost invariably ignored. Experts say that it will be hard to rid Thailand of an industry that is so entrenched and that provides pay-offs to untold numbers of officials and policemen.
But the military government is in denial about the proliferation of prostitution and its contribution to the economy and tourism, said Ms Panomporn Utaisri, country director of NightLight, a Christian non- profit group that helps women in the sex trade to find alternative work.
"There's no denying this industry generates a lot of income," she said.
There are no government estimates of the value of Thailand's sex industry, or how much of the income from tourism comes from sex tourists. But the tourism sector accounts for about 10 per cent of gross domestic product.
Ms Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers in Group (Swing), which provides sex workers with free medical care and vocational training, said: "Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income."
There are about 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, said a 2014 UNAids report, compared with 37,000 sex workers in neighbouring Cambodia.
Last month, police raided dozens of brothels in major cities, but a spokesman said it was not linked to the tourism minister's aim to rid Thailand of its sex industry. Police said they were looking for venues employing underage and illegal migrant workers, but only one of the places raided was shut down.
NightLight and Swing said they would welcome the sex industry's closure if the government had a plan to ensure that sex workers could support themselves without falling back into the business.
"If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support the sex workers," said Swing's Ms Surang.