Sex Tourism in the Modern World


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Sex Tourism

Sex tourism can be defined simply as “travel for which the main motivation is to engage in commercial sexual relations” (Carter & Cliff, 200). Sex tourism is still somewhat of a taboo area within the greater tourism industry. It is difficult to estimate its numeric value to the industry due to the difficulties in primary reseach. It’s often secretive in nature and while some activities in sex tourism are legal in the jurisdictions they are practised in many more are not and exist only because of lax, unenforced laws or underground activities. It is a global industry with locations synonymous with sex tourism existing on every continent from the Netherlands to Thailand and from Cuba to Ghana. In general, it is practised by the citizens of more highly developed nations in Europe, North America and Australia who travel to less developed poorer countries (Godlewski & Wereszczuk, 2010). While it may be perceived as being a uniquely male pursuit the truth is that it is also pursued by woman who travel to countries in Africa and the Caribbean to engage in sex tourism (Bauer, 2014).

The push factors for those who engage in this type of tourism may be the illegality of these activities in their own country, the cultural taboo around them and the possible social and financial constraints involved in these activities in their own country. The pull factors that can motivate a tourist to travel to a destination to engage in sex tourism can include more relaxed laws governing sexual services, cheaper sexual services, greater anonymity and sexual adventurism (Kibicho,2009). For those willingly working in the sex tourism industry the reasons can be perceived as negative, but it’s noted by Hart & Singh (2007) that most of the women are motivated by money and the concept of duty. “Not all of these women face extreme economic hardship, but sex work can help increase the standard of living for themselves and their families” further “Money was the motive, but workers saw it as their responsibility to provide that money to their families” the money made by one worker in the city can support a whole family in the countryside. The alternative to working in sex tourism may not be appealing, employment opportunities open to women with low levels of education in many developing countries are poor with low paying unskilled jobs for long hours of work (Kibicho, 2005).

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In this essay I will discuss sex tourism and its relationship with the greater tourism industry from the following current issues: people trafficking and child prostitution, how sex tourism affects the destination image & perception and the economic benefits it to the destination. I will also discuss the implication of future trends in the area looking at the role of globalisation, technology and the health implications for those who engaged in this industry. Two of the most disturbing aspects of sex tourism are its links to people trafficking and child prostitution. Trafficking is defined by the UN as “ “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” ( ,2018) Statistics show that 79% of those trafficked are woman and children (gugic,2014). While many of those working in the sex industry may be driven to work there due to poverty and the lack of alternative industries there is still choice involved and financial gain for the workers. However, forcing people to unwillingly participate by any of the means outlined by the UN is illegal globally but still in widespread practice.

According to the International Labour Organization there are an estimated 4.8 million people trapped in sexual slavery (, 2017). This obviously puts sex tourism under scrutiny there is no sure way for the sex tourist to know whether or not the person who’s services they are engaging are the victims of a trafficking or not and so by engaging in this tourism they are potentially adding to the problem and supporting both a criminal and morally reprehensible act. As the demand for sex tourism increases so will the number of people trafficked to meet that demand this is a very negative aspect of sex tourism.Interconnected with this issue is the prevalence of child prostitution. It’s difficult to determine the numbers of child prostitutes globally or the amount of people who engage in this type of sex tourism, but we can estimate they are significant. Thailand has an unwelcome reputation as a destination for child prostitution. Children will be trafficked into the industry as already discussed or be forced into it in societies where poverty is widespread and with little or no education opportunities, social welfare protection or other means of survival. The alternatives to prostitution are begging or sweatshop work for little pay and long hours. It’s believed between 60 – 200,000 children In Thailand are engaged in sex work (Harrison,2001).

There are laws to prevent this activity and protect children but the sex industry laws in Thailand are only sporadically enforced and used as a political tool ( Again, where there is a demand for this activity it will always exist to some degree. For the children involved it will undoubtedly leave psychological scars and future issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental issues which can result with drug abuse, alcoholism and other destructive behaviours (levine, 2017). In both cases the sex tourist can leave behind destroyed lives and a legacy of trauma and abuse by their actions. The image of a destination can become damaged and perceived in a negative way if sex tourism becomes linked with it. As discussed sex tourism is synonymous with Thailand which would be hugely off putting to other demographics like families or cultural tourists. This is unfortunate given the beautiful beaches, temples and historical attractions the country also has on offer. This is also the case in the Netherlands. Amsterdam became a magnet for sex tourists following the legalisation of prostitution in 2000. This brought many economic benefits to the city directly to those in the sex industry and to the subsidiary tourist industries but also anti-social behaviour including property damage, higher rents and increased costs of living for locals. The image of Amsterdam as a hedonistic destination attracted tourists who behaved badly because of their perception of the city and the influx of tourists pushed prices up for those living there.

Despite these negatives sex tourism provides an industry that can support people living in poverty. Many of the prime destinations are in developing countries in South east Asia, South America and Africa. The industry attracts tourists who will boost the economy through transactions with the sex worker but also avail of flights, hotels, restaurants, taxi’s and other services at the destination. In areas with little other industry, sex tourism can be valuable to the countries overall economy (Kibicho, 2005).Globalisation will shape where and to an extent how future sex tourism is consumed. Altman (2001) says “Tourism is a significant factor in globalisation, both economic and cultural and has become on some measures the largest single employer in the world. In many places it is closely linked to commercial sex”. The increased availability of cheap international travel and the significant increase in people availing of this travel has facilitated more sex tourism, The number of international tourists increased from 527 million in 1995 to 1.14 billion in 2014, further it has changed the “traditionally” viewed consumer as the wealthy middle aged westerner travelling for this specific reason to include business travellers or expatriates who are ‘situational’ consumers. In noted sex tourism areas like South East Asia the sex tourist is now more likely to be Chinese, Japanese or Korean as they now travel more to the region than Westerners (, 2016).

The establishment of a global marketplace online has seen sex tourism holidays and destinations advertised to customers in other countries and are easily arranged. It also alerts people in one country to the availability of work in the sex industry in another, the movement of people from East Asia to the gulf states for example (Altman, 2001). Globalisation and more movement of people and services will continue to influence sex tourism.Advances in technology continue to influence sex tourism. The ease of accessing sex workers using websites and mobile apps like Tinder, Grindr and Badoo have changed how the sex tourist interacts with the worker. It’s easy to download these apps on arrival at the destination and interact with those offering sexual services there. This changes more traditional ways the tourist may have encountered the sex worker by visiting a red-light district or bar. Despite the obvious safety risks involved of being robbed or assaulted this is quite common. The continued development and sophistication of robots has meant that there is a market for them in sex tourism.

So-called sex robot brothels have been opened in Spain, Germany, Russia and other countries in Europe with attempts to open similar ventures in Texas and Vancouver in North America. While these are a niche market now, on-going improvements in technology could see them grow in popularity and become the future of sex tourism. According to Yeoman and Mars (2018) there are several reasons for this: as a method to curb human trafficking, method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and the beauty and physical perfection of the robots. With technology constantly evolving and expanding into new areas it’s certain to continue impacting on sex tourism in the future.The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in this industry means it is both an immediate issue and one for the future. Sex workers are 13 times more likely to become infected with HIV than adults in the general population, this can fluctuate geographically with up to 50% of sex workers in some parts of Africa carrying the infection ( 2018). This obviously poses a risk to both the sex worker and the sex tourist. In less developed nations where there is less education and more poverty the spread of diseases is likely to increase. The fear of contracting the virus has led to a demand for younger sex workers who it’s believed are less likely to have the disease which then in turn sees an increase in child sex workers. This group is in fact more susceptible to disease and less likely to have access to medical care. In some jurisdictions it is illegal to provide HIV care to those under eighteen to discourage sex work by underage children

The issue of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV will continue in the future given the high percentage of sex workers at risk from disease and the continued demand for workers by sex tourists.In conclusion we can see sex tourism is a well-established and booming industry both in destinations where it is legal and illegal. Due to its legal and moral status this type of tourism is hard to measure and quantify, it is often unregulated and hidden. It has huge issues in the area of people trafficking and child prostitution. The strict enforcement of laws in host countries for trafficking must be observed and a more integrated international effort to prevent these crimes by working within framework suggested by the UN would help to eradicate both issues. Countries also should follow plans by Ireland to ban paedophiles and sex offenders from travelling abroad and engaging in any illegal activities (, 2017). The image and perception of a destination can be damaged if it becomes heavily associated with sex tourism. It can cause tourists to behave in a negative manner to the residents and to the destination in general as they may perceive that activities that are unacceptable in their own countries will be accepted in the host destinations. It can also drive up living costs as tourists will pay more for services than locals as in the case of Amsterdam.

It can also narrow the types of tourists that visit a destination. If a destination is synonymous with sex tourism, it’s unlikely to appeal to tourists with families or those seeking out a more cultural experience. For destinations where sex tourism is prevalent there is a need to make sure it is not the sole attraction and that it does not take over every aspect of the destination. Germany for example has legalised prostitution and has between 400,000 and a million sex workers. It is frequented by sex tourists from other nations in Europe (, 2013) but due to the diverse nature of its tourism product which has historical, cultural and natural highlights it is not associated with sex tourism to the same degree as Thailand or The Netherlands is.

These negative aspects aside sex tourism provides destinations, particularly in developing countries an industry that does not need a huge amount of financial investment to enter. It will attract tourists who’s spending will boost the economy and provide employment through sex tourism directly and indirectly through subsidiarity industries. Overdependence on it may not be healthy due to the reasons mentioned earlier with regards to reputational damage and the type of tourist it may attract but for countries with little industrial infrastructure it can be positive. In terms of the future the globalisation of the world will likely increase the numbers of sex tourists both those travelling to destinations with the specific intent of partaking in this kind of tourism and ‘situational’ sex tourists as cheap travel will see more people on the move and the emergence of new middle classes in countries like China and India will see new customers in the market. The ease of using a global marketplace in the form of the internet will allow tourists to plan book and tailor holidays with sex tourism in mind with many websites existing who specialize in this.

Globalisation is expanding the industry. Technological advances in app’s and websites make the process of interaction with sex workers much easier and remove the need for traditional methods of meeting these workers. It changes the intracoronary process and the need to frequent specific areas in a destination to engage in sex tourism. The development of sex robots is a blossoming industry with locations in Europe and North America already offering robots to customers as this can be seen as both a safer and more moral way of engaging with sex tourism and a such has the potential to become popular and become a large niche within sex tourism. The sex tourism industry will always have the risk of sexually transmitted disease running in tandem with it. Education for both the tourist and sex worker is the key to reducing this and helping to eradicate it in the future, misconceptions and incorrect information have led to the spread of conditions like HIV and the sexual abuse of minors. Providing medical care and other services to the workers would help remove both the stigma and possible health implications for the workers.

Some degree of legalisation and control of the industry would help to make the industry safer for both tourist and worker. Sex tourism will increase as there has always been a market for it and with globalisation and the increase of travellers and those with the means to travel and partake in it. However, for the positive’s it can provide economically there are also a lot of negatives. A concerted effort to eradicate the issues that plague this industry in the forms of people trafficking and child sex workers as well as the education and treatment around sexual diseases are needed to make this industry safer and more acceptable.


  1. Altman, D., 2001. Global Sex. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Bauer, I, 2014. Romance tourism or female sex tourism? Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, [Online]. 12 – 1, 20 – 28.
  2. Carter & Cliff, S., 2000. Tourism and Sex. Culture, commerce and Coercion. 1st ed. London: Pinter.
  3. Godlewski, G & Wereszczuk, M, 2010. Sex tourism – A function or disfunction of the contemporary travel sector? Polish Journal of Sport & Tourism, 8 -1, 7 – 14, Gugić, z, 2014. Human trafficking under the veil of sex tourism in Thailand – Reactions of the EU.. Pravni Vjesnik., issue 2, 355-376.
  4. Hart, A & Singh, J, 2007. Sex Workers and Cultural Policy: Mapping the Issues and Actors in Thailand. Review of Policy Research, 24 – 2, 155-173
  5. Harrison, D., 2001. Tourism and the less developed world: Issues and case studies. 1st ed. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.
  6. Kibicho, W., 2009. Sex Tourism in Africa: Kenya’s Booming Industry. 1st ed. Burlington, USA: Ashgate.
  7. Levine, J, 2017. Mental health issues in survivors of sex trafficking. Cogent Medicine, 4 – 1, online. 2018

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