Reports of empty go go bars and bored, Thai bar girls improvising Christmas parties, while tourist numbers are at an all-time high, shows things have changed. Thailand’s tourist chiefs have decoupled Thailand’s growing tourist industry from the sex, sun and cheap beer image of less than a decade ago. Not only is Thailand sex industry in decline, it is now facing a campaign of suppression from Thai authorities, working with international NGOs who, while tackling human trafficking and abuse of under-aged minors. They are sending a message. Time is up for Thailand’s sex industry and sex tourism.

Thailand has a had record tourism year but it faces a possible challenge next year, with an increasingly negative and unstable world economy. The end of the year saw many bar girls in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket entertaining themselves to Christmas parties alone, while some high-end luxury hotels saw a dearth of big-spending western ‘farang’ or foreigners. The reason is clear, Thailand is changing and so is the country’s tourism business. For one, there is a serious and ongoing crackdown underway against the sex industry in Thailand and sex tourism is no longer wanted by the country’s leaders and tourism chiefs. In the meantime, new tourists are using disruptive technologies such as Airbnb and heading for locations off the beaten track.

Thailand’s dynamic and successful tourist authority has this week released figures that show tourist arrivals to the Kingdom, to November 2018, up by as much as 7% with higher arrivals also from some western countries, with a 6.8% increase in the numbers of visitors from the United States.

However, for some, who depend on Thailand’s booming tourist trade, the end of year tourist numbers, as well as Christmas and New Years trade, has left a lot of to be desired.

It is Thailand’s original tourist attractions, the sex industry and the large and established hotels and resorts throughout the country. Both are reporting a very mediocre year with many hard-working bar girls in some of Thailand’s red-light areas, left entertaining themselves, alone, with improvised Christmas parties, as Thailand gets set to ring in the new year.

Thailand’s tourist industry now decoupled from the sex industry and prostitution – that message has been heard loud and clear

In 2016, Thailand’s Tourism Minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, was quoted by Reuters  ‘We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone,’ she said. She was not joking. Today that message is being heard loud and clear as brothels and go-go bars across Thailand feel the pinch. The success of Thailand’s tourist chiefs and agencies has seen spiralling numbers of high spending tourists from more Asian counties and younger western visitors, many of them women. Thailand’s tourism industry is no longer about sex, sun and cheap beer. As the Tourism Minister said then: ‘Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture.’ Laughed at then by some, more cynical types as PR, her words have proved prescient and correct. Today’s tourist to Thailand is different as is the country. It will soon be time for many of Thailand’s bar girls and sex workers to get a job as sex tourists depart for other Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines. Times are now changing everywhere, not only in Asia but the World.

The reasons are manifold. One of them is an ongoing campaign, since 2014, driven by the military government, to suppress the sex trade.

In 2016, Thailand’s Tourism Minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, was quoted by Reuters  ‘We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone,’ she said.

She is the first Thai woman to hold the role and her comments, along with the policies of the Thai military government, have been shown, demonstrably, not to be just PR talk. They are for real.

Raids and pressure on Thai sex bars and brothels

Since 2014, there have been ongoing raids on sex bars and brothels in Thailand.

Admittedly, they have been focusing primarily on underage prostitution with the government setting up a new task force and support structure to intervene to assist young people drawn into the trade.

The Thai government is working extensively now with foreign NGOs, who are increasingly active in Thailand and focused on this area. ‘Tourists don’t come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture,’ the Thai minister said in the same interview with Reuters in 2016.

Again, she has been proved right, as Thailand’s tourist agencies have succeeded in decoupling the country’s tourism industry from the sex industry and gradually that message is getting out. In fact, the message has been heard and now understood, loud and clear.

Thai bar girls and brothel-owners no longer operating with impunity in the Land of Smiles

In the meantime, for Thailand’s bar girls and prostitutes, the future is looking grim.

While owners of brothels and bars, that cater for tourists seeking intimate, female company, reel under a range of indirect pressures, from early closing hours to regular police inspections, requests for proper paperwork, the bar girls are reported to be earning less and facing the unheard-of prospect of job insecurity.

Every police raid and closure, even for a short time, can put scores of young women out of work and the campaign seems to be stepping up.

In the meantime, Thailand’s police authorities and officials are showing a determination to root out corruption. The days of having a word with a senior police officer and handing over a token, a gesture of gratitude are gone forever.

There are officially reported to be over 130,000 Thai women still working in Thailand’s prostitution industry although most observers suggest that this figure is more like 300,000.

Thailand’s prostitution culture is different and has drawn hostility from around the world as well as sex tourism from western countries

Many are breadwinners for extended families or elderly parents who live at the bottom or the fringes of Thai society.

It is a very different prostitution culture from western countries and has always been like this, so much so that it has drawn attention and concern not only from western feminists and progressive thinkers but a growing list of active and well funded NGOs.

This message has reached the Thai government through international bodies and foreign governments, who refer to the human trafficking associated with the prostitution industry itself, which they consider an affront to the dignity of women worldwide.

In the last decade and a half, the number of Thai women working in the Thai prostitution industry has declined by as much as 25%.

At one time, at the height of the industry, years after the 1997 financial crisis, it was reported that up to 1,000,000 Thai women may have been directly or indirectly involved with different sorts of prostitution rackets.

The key figure that coincides with the drop off in prostitution in Thailand is the poverty rate, which has declined from 44% in 1988 to 7% this year.

It is quite an achievement for successive Thai governments and one to be proud of.

Latest raid, this week, in Samut Prakan due to NGO tip-off about underage sex workers at a Thai bar

The latest raid, by Thai police and human trafficking authorities, occurred at a karaoke bar days ago in the Bang Sao Thong area of Samut Prakan province, within the greater Bangkok area. Nine women reported to be working in the sex trade were rounded up at the venue.

Police found that two were underage girls, one 16 years old and the other 17 years old. It is not clear whether they are Thai nationals as many such raids, in the last few months, have shown that younger girls working as sex workers often originate from Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar.

The raid was prompted by a tip-off to authorities by an NGO organisation engaged in targeting the Thai sex trade. Such NGOs, funded by voluntary donations and based in western countries, often employ undercover operatives such as ex-policemen or civilian rescue workers, to pose as sex tourists seeking prostitution services.

Two owners of a Thai beer bar may yet face more serious human trafficking charges 

The raid in Samut Prakan occurred at 8.30 p.m on Thursday evening and resulted in the closure of the bar.

Both proprietors, named as 42-year-old Jariya Phusua and 46-year-old Mongkolchai Pornrattanakul, were arrested by police.

The grounds were that they were operating the establishment without proper licensing but it is understood that police will examine the possibility of prosecuting them on more serious human trafficking charges.

The two underage girls were taken into the custody of a new unit, operating within Thailand’s Social Security and Human Security Ministry, where they will be protected and offered the opportunity to rehabilitate.

Younger, attractive Thai women today have better, economic options than prostitution

The prostitution industry in Thailand is facing other challenges, quite apart from for the heavy hand of the law which is engaged in a gradual campaign of suppression against it.

This unwelcome attitude, in itself, has become a factor.

 Many sex tourists are now flocking to lower-priced Cambodia and Vietnam, seeing Thailand as having become a more developed tourist destination and looking for cheaper sex thrills. There is also reported to be an opinion, voiced regularly on forums and news boards by veteran tourists of the more dubious kind, that there are fewer young women involved in Thailand’s sex trade and that they are less attractive.

This could well be true.

Today, even though economic conditions could be better, there are more economic opportunities for younger, attractive and more educated Thai women than prostitution.

Thailand’s demographics could also be feeding into this perception. Many sex tourists now opt for the Philippines which still has a significantly larger, younger population than Thailand and where the poverty rate is higher.

High class independent escorts left sitting alone at some high-class hotels in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket at the end of a record tourist year

In the meantime, the tourist sector in Thailand continues to flourish except for some of the larger luxury hotels and resorts. This Christmas, it has been reported that a number of larger, high class, hotels in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya had lower than usual foreign bookings.

As the crowds milled about, there were more Arab visitors than western foreigners, with many high-class independent escorts, dressed provocatively and cradling a drink, left sitting empty-handed at some of the city’s more fashionable water holes, in the past frequented by wealthy, high spending ‘farang,’ which is the Thai word for western foreigners.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Tourists to Thailand no longer relying on expensive hotels and resorts, by becoming disruptive

The Thai tourism experts have worked on a spectacularly successful campaign in the last decade. Thailand has now more female visitors and a younger aged tourist profile.

It is simply not about the middle-aged 50 to 60-year-old, white men from western countries, anymore.

The second factor is that tourists are no longer staying at high priced hotels, running up expensive charge accounts.

Yes, they are still spending money but they are booking online and increasingly using services like Airbnb.

This is despite recent, stern, Thai court rulings and police warnings that this ‘disruptive’ service breaches Thailand’s laws, including the significantly important Section 38 of Thailand’s Immigration Act, which calls on all property owners to notify authorities within 24 hours if a foreigner is a resident at an address.

This is something that is being tackled as a priority by Thailand’s security chiefs.

Airbnb still big in Thailand and the tourist industry, despite growing legal problems for property owners

In spite of this, Airbnb continues to prosper in Thailand with, surprisingly, many wealthy visitors availing of the service to rent out luxury condominium units from expats and local owners for the same price or lower than that of a luxury hotel bedroom.

There were reports, according to Airbnb itself, of as many as 1.65 million visitors to Thailand this year, using the service.

A report from the company suggested that 88% of these visitors stayed outside the more popular tourist areas.

They spent a whopping ฿4 billion on the restaurant (฿1.7billion), cultural pursuits (฿1.5 billion) and ฿800 million on groceries.

Thailand is changing, prostitution industry must be left behind as the country progresses

Ironically, this kind of tourism fits well into the Thai government’s economic aims for tourism to bring wealth and income into secondary and less well off areas of Thailand.

However, it could be argued that the bar girls and women, working in the prostitution industry, are a most effective way of doing this, as many are there in the first place to help their poorer families.

On the other hand, there is a counter view that we must accept that Thailand is changing and many Thais, a proud people, feel that that the prostitution industry must be left behind, slowly but surely, as it demeans the nation and its women.

New tourists want a different experience, many are younger and many come from Southeast Asia

Another factor in the changing face of tourism in Thailand, is that tourists are no longer confined to Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and the old favourites.

They are now, through using online booking systems and encouraged by deliberate Thai government policy, able to visit secondary areas within Thailand thereby enjoying a new and more authentic experience.

A range of new transport hubs and connections points, including new airport connections have allowed this vista to open. This is quite popular, of course, among younger western visitors, of whom there are more and more.

The next glaring factor is that the huge growth in Thai tourism, in recent years, is coming from China and Southeast Asia.

In the figures for November 2018, it showed that nearly two-thirds are now coming from Asia with nearly 30% fro China alone.

A story reported in the Thai Examiner some weeks ago of a fight at a Pattaya bar illustrates the new reality.

Bar girl provokes bar fight after Chinese man refuses her attentions in Pattaya – fines and charges ordered

A group of Chinese visitors wanted a late-night drunk and ended up in a brawl with the bar staff as one of the Chinese men was not interested in the attentions of a Thai bar girl working in the establishment.

Political turmoil everywhere in the world is a threat to Thailand’s growing tourism prospects

In the meantime, the Thai tourist industry has bigger considerations. This year will see over 35 million visitors and a 7% increase on last year.

Thailand’s tourist authority and bosses have shown that they are both farsighted and capable. However, next year and into the future, new challenges are emerging. There is growing disquiet and political unrest around the world, with protests in Europe and the, on and off again, US-China trade war.

This is thought to be a factor, even now, and will certainly be one in the future.

Political turmoil has a dampening effect on tourism everywhere. This was alluded to by Vichit Prakobgosol of the Thai Travel Agents Association in the last few days when he was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying: ‘If China and the US are unable to reach a trade agreement or put talks on hold, it will affect travel business because many tourists in the US and Europe might not travel overseas.’

Thailand must be on guard and competitive

There is also a new move by China to promote the prospect of Chinese people availing of its own, home-based, tourism offering and to conserve its trade balance by discouraging overseas travel.

The more negative scenario is that the world is pulling in its horns, which is bound to spark an economic downturn. Thailand must remain competitive and not have all its eggs in one basket when it comes to markets. That is exactly how things now stand, fortunately.

Thailand targets another record tourism year for 2019 but the clouds are darker than last year

This is why, in spite of these concerns, and with a record year for 2018, Thailand is looking for up to 40 million visitors for 2019. The income or revenue target by Thai authorities is well over ฿2 trillion, a massive figure. There is still hope that numbers will rise from Southeast Asia including China.

One factor could be the spate of natural disasters in other Southeast Asian nations, from earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia to hurricanes in the Philippines.

In spite of the concerns about the impact of Brexit and erratic US trade policies, there still scope for an expanding world economy if things go well.

Strong concern however about world economic conditions persist into the new year with Thailand’s election another critical factor

Thailand’s economy is now only forecast to grow by 4.2% this year, showing the damage done by a very tough environment in the third and fourth quarters of the year.

The forecast for 2019 is reduced to 4%. There is no doubt that there is concern about world conditions and the outcome of Thailand’s election in February 2019, which will also be critical.

No one wants a return to the devastating experience of 2013 and 2014, when political unrest upended the country’s economic performance and prospects.

That challenge or fear certainly now exists and is growing starker, as the opposing sides of the political divide in Thailand are becoming clear again and appear equally balanced against each other.

Thailand as a holiday spot for sun, sex and cheap beer is a proposition that is on the way out

With the exceptionally good tourist figures, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand confirmed that Thailand was on target for earning ฿3 trillion from the tourist sector this year, including home and foreign customers.

He did accept that figures were down from August until November, following the lull in Chinese visitors, responding to a crisis between China and Thailand over an appalling boating tragedy in Phuket, which occurred in July and saw 47 lives lost, many of Chinese tourists and family members.

He projected more visitors in 2019, both from China and emerging Southeast Asian nations, notably Vietnam, where economic development is up, that country having just signed an EU trade agreement.

The tourist authority is now focusing on niche areas or target marketing, to lure new, potential visitors to Thailand, notably from western countries.

These include ethical tourists and female tour groups. These are visitors that are no longer interested in the old proposition of Thailand for sun, sex and cheap beer.

Those days may not yet be gone but they are on the way out, ask the bar girls in Pattaya, Phuket or Bangkok.

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Further reading:

Phuket reopening getting up holidaymakers noses with no less than 5 Covid-19 tests to be paid for

Prayut says Thailand will revert to normal for tourism from mid-October as Phuket set to reopen

Closure of Phuket bars and alcohol restrictions turn off prospective foreign tourist says survey

Blow for travellers: strict rules, no bars and entertainment venues allowed to open in Phuket

Thai Female Minister – the end of sex tourism as Thailand too moves towards girl power

Heroes with a mission: Foreigners rescue young Thai girls from Thailand’s vice dens

Thailand’s sex industry crackdown sees westerners rounded up at hotel orgy in Pattaya – brothel raided

Thai femme fatale raises the question of safety for westerners who bring strangers to hotel rooms in Thailand