Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sex industry throbs with tourism boom

By Roderick T. dela Cruz - Sun Star

With the recent resurgence of Philippine tourism, Claris, 19, has been getting big tips. Working as a sex worker in a poor country, which is trying to rediscover tourism as a growth driver of the economy, Claris uses her pretty face and winsome charms to entertain foreign tourists searching for a wonderful experience in the island paradise. She works in a place where sex is priced at P2,500 an hour.

Claris’ excuse for choosing such a job, which sounds more plausible than those of the others, is that at 16, she got pregnant and had no schooling to back her other desired occupations. Claris says her colleagues introduce themselves as students to appear more attractive, if not vulnerable, to their customers. But this is not to say that there are not students among sex workers.

When a friend invited Claris to work at a KTV three years ago, she conceded and eventually learned the tricks of the trades. She also learned about multi-tasking, that is, being a guest relations officer (GRO) and a sex worker at the same time. In most KTVs in the country, the difference between the two is barely noticeable.

The Davao-based KTV where Claris works attracts Caucasians and Asians. Twice, Claris got marriage proposals from her Japanese customers. Twice, she refused them, afraid that she would be separated from her family that she financially supports. Although aghast at her occupation at first, Claris’ parents eventually learned to accept it. Earning as much as P2,500 in a single sex encounter with a customer, Claris is her family’s breadwinner in a city where the daily minimum wage is below P300.

Most likely, Claris is not even this girl’s real name. Most sex workers in the country use aliases to protect their real identities so that they can live normal lives as mothers, wives, sisters and girls-next-door during the day. They change names as often as they switch from one customer to another. Common aliases include Nicole, Apple, Anne, Mariz, Aubrey, Cindy, Maricar, Sabrina and Janice, to name a few.

All of these girls claim to be 18 years or older. Those who look younger won’t admit their real age, as if being older gives them the license to engage in prostitution. An employee of a Quezon City-based bar, however, admits that some of the girls in their establishment are 17 years old and younger.

“Between us boys, of course they are young because customers prefer them to be young. But we do not disclose their real age for reasons you already know,” the employee says.

Customers, he adds, prefer women who are 19 years old or younger. “Up to 21 years, they may still get some customers. But when they reach 22, I do not know.”

At an intersection along Quezon Avenue, Apple, a petite girl who cannot get employment at any of the nearby bars because of her tender age is often seen waving at cars. Although she looks younger than 16, the fair-skinned Apple claims to be 19 and asks for a service fee of P1,000 for a one-hour interaction. There are hundreds like her along Quezon Avenue.

Although illegal in the Philippines, prostitution thrives. It is being boosted by dollars brought in by foreign tourists, who are most likely to be male, aged 38 years or older and in the country for pleasure. The government actually has enough laws against prostitution.

Among these is Republic Act 9208, otherwise known as the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, which seeks to save women and children from falling into prostitution, pornography, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, involuntary servitude or debt bondage. Unfortunately, the law does not save them from poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities, which force thousands of women to prostitution. The fact that some Filipinos are very rich and others are very poor breeds the exploitation and abuse of poor women.

In 2005, some 2.6 million foreign tourists infused about $2.4 billion into the country, the highest in history. This year, the Department of Tourism (DoT) expects between $2.8 and $2.9 billion from the influx of about three million visitors. Another 3.4 million visitors are expected in 2007, 3.88 million by 2008, 4.42 million by 2009 and five million by 2010.

Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, who is actively promoting the Philippines in Korea, China and Japan, denies any link between tourism and prostitution. “Prostitution is a social problem, not just a tourism problem,” he says.

While the DoT claims that it tries to woo family vacationers, their own data suggests otherwise. Based on the 2004 profile of foreign visitors, 62.4 percent or more than three out of five tourists were male. About 79 percent of tourists from Japan, in particular, were male.

Claris admits that Japanese tourists are the biggest spenders. “Unlike Koreans,” she says without elaborating. Claris works in one of the most expensive KTVs in Davao City, which has recently hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Tourism Forum. Davao, one of the anchor tourism destinations in the Philippines, is famous for its nightlife. A foreign operator of a prostitution Web site says that “Davao has them (prostitutes). It wouldn’t be the Philippines if they didn’t.”

Tourist districts in the Philippines are not tourist districts without a scintillating nightlife. Malate, Roxas Boulevard, Makati Avenue, Baguio, Angeles, Olongapo, Cebu, Sabang Beach in Puerto Galera, Boracay, Cagayan de Oro and Davao— areas that are near tourist spots—are just among the tourist districts that glow in the dark.

Sometimes, the nightlife becomes the main attraction itself. Such is the case along Quezon Avenue in Quezon City, where Japanese, Koreans, Americans and Europeans have found their way to pleasure despite the location’s great distance from any major tourist spot.

In Davao City, restaurants, cafés, watering holes, bars, KTVs and prostitution joints such as clubs, massage parlors and casas (brothels) have sprouted along Cabaguio Avenue, Quirino Avenue, Recto Avenue, Bonifacio Street and San Pedro Street. Although entertainment complexes such as the Venue, Matina Town Square, Victoria Plaza and Rizal Promenade have been originally designed for yuppies and teenagers, they have also become the favorite hangouts of tourists in search of call girls, many of who are alleged college students, although such claims cannot be easily proven.

On Jan. 14 to 21, more than 3,000 foreign participants went to Davao for the ATF Forum, the largest tourism event in the region that has tackled different issues related to tourism including sex tourism. So successful was the event that the city had to turn away more than 100 Korean participants who could not be accommodated in the city’s fully occupied hotels, one Mindanao-based economist says. During the forum, participants committed to address the problem of sex tourism and child exploitation in Asia.

One driver, however, claims that some male foreign participants in the forum went out at night and found their way to the city’s nightspots. Bar girls confirm this. Many ATF participants were treated to a night of fun at one KTV, one source says. Almost all nightspots, particularly those near hotels such as Marco Polo and Apo View, had foreign guests. Even pick up girls and call girls had foreign customers in January, a friend of these girls claims.

Tour operators also confirm this, although they say this was not a part of the participants’ official itinerary. “We do not encourage tourists to go to these spots, although we have no choice but to bring them to the legitimate bars, when they ask for it,” a tour operator says.

Another tour guide says that instead of picking up girls in the streets, who are protected and pimped by some erring policemen, he would rather advise the foreign guests to visit the legitimate KTVs and bars. Inside KTVs and bars, however, it’s not only singing and dancing, but sex as well. For a fee of P1,500 to P2,000, customers can stay at so-called VIP rooms or cubicles where they can have sex with a GRO or a bar girl for additional P2,000 to P2,500. This is true in major cities such as Quezon City, Manila, Makati, Pasay, Baguio, Cebu and Davao.

In Davao City, call girls could hardly gain entrance to hotels because of strict rules imposed by hotel management. Special visits to guest rooms, however, are arranged through room boys or bellboys who have contact with these girls, who wait for calls outside at a nearby alley. The number of call girls and pickup girls increases every time the city hosts festivals or large events, which means that girls from other cities go there to meet tourists, according to one tour operator.

Janice, a GRO, attests to this, saying she herself is moving from one city to another. She has moved from Cagayan de Oro City, to Cebu City and then to Davao City. She also plans to go to Guam. The same is true in Quezon City, where girls transfer from one bar to another to get the attention of customers. Regular customers always want somebody new, especially virgins, one club employee says.

In Metro Manila, groups of fine-looking girls gain entry to hotels by wearing classy outfits. They usually stroll near the lobby or elevator area of deluxe hotels. Special signals serve as interaction between the girls and potential customers, particularly at hotels with casinos. The DoT and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) recently joined hands in promoting casino tourism in the country.

Pagcor chairman Ephraim Genuino says that the planned $4-billion casino and entertainment complex in Manila and Clark will employ 200,000 Filipinos. Obviously, Genuino is only trying to get Congress to extend Pagcor’s charter, which will expire in 2008, by another 25 years.

The owner of a travel agency concedes that the sex industry is beyond the control of the Department of Tourism (DoT). He also admits that when tourists are looking for sex, travel agencies have no choice but to tell them where it can be found. And it can be found in many places.

Along Quezon Ave., it can be found fastest at massage parlors, where customers choose who to have sex with from a roomful of girls. All this in the guise of getting a massage for P1,500 to P2,000.

One of the oldest massage parlors in the area had to bring down its charges and offer promo rates to lure back customers who have found a wider selection of girls from the salon. One that has been getting a lot of attention lately is an exclusive massage parlor where politicians, businessmen, actors, foreigners and moneyed individuals have been sighted.

Casas (brothels), which are not considered legitimate establishments, offer sex services at more affordable rates. Then, there are also clubs, bars and KTVs where customers and GROs or bar girls can spend an hour or more at the VIP room with their customers for P1,500 to P2,000 and have sex for another P2,000 to P2,500. Outside the VIP room, a lady’s drink would cost the customer P500 to P600 every 30 minutes. One of these clubs in Quezon City is getting a lot of Japanese and Korean customers, because it is known for employing really young girls.

Another form of prostitution is the so-called escort service, where the call girl accompanies the tourist to the places he wants to visit, including the hotel room where he stays. This has also evolved into a sex tour. In Makati City, some expatriates recruit girls to join them in a party where sex is open to everyone who is present. The escort service trade is highly popular in Puerto Galera, Palawan and Boracay.

But the most notorious of them all is child prostitution, which involves either Internet pornography or actual sex. A DoT employee admits that child exploitation persists in Angeles City, Puerto Galera and Pagsanjan, Laguna. According to the End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), children have been targets of prey not only by pedophiles but also by those who are afraid of contracting HIV/AIDS from older women and therefore prefer children as sex partners.

It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 sex workers in the Philippines, including thousands of young children prostituted by syndicates. According to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Southeast Asia is one of the world’s top destinations for people seeking sex with children. The Philippines, in particular, was criticized for its weak enforcement against child pornography.

A search for the word Filipina or Filipino woman at global search engine Google.com would most likely result in links to pornography sites. One site promotes mail order brides; another, video clips of sex for a fee and another, sex tours in the Philippines. “Meet some sweet Filipina girls from small Philippine towns,” one Web site says in its header.

Amid the spread of prostitution in the Philippines, women’s group Gabriela blames the tourism program of the government as a contributory factor to the growing problem of prostitution.

“The tourism program of the government which aims to project the Philippines as a major tourist destination has increased the number of prostituted women. As more and more areas of the country are targeted for tourism, more and more women are driven to prostitution in desperation to ensure their family’s survival,” Gabriela says.

The Philippines used to send many entertainers to Japan, but with the stricter immigration and working policies in the world’s second largest economy and the growth in international tourism in the Philippines, many girls actually decided to work in local bars and KTVs while waiting for their working visas.

As expected, the DoT is quick to deny any link between prostitution and tourism. But not all officials are singing the same tune. One DoT official, who has been stripped of his previous functions, has criticized the present focus on Korea, Japan and China without sustaining the promotion efforts in the more sophisticated markets of Germany and the United Kingdom. Senator Richard Gordon, a former tourism secretary, admits that quality tourists still come from Western and Northern Europe.

While arrivals from China have been growing at double-digit rates over the past few months, critics say this has worsened the problem of illegal immigration of Chinese traders into the country where they are accused of smuggling cheap goods to the detriment of local industries. Local travel operators, on the other hand, accuse Korean businessmen of usurping their businesses, particularly in the area of tour operation. Worse, they say Korean businessmen have bought a number of bars, KTVs and motels in different parts of the country, by using Filipino dummies.

Eduardo Jarque Jr., assistant secretary for tourism planning and promotion at DoT, says prostitution is not exclusive to the Philippines. “Other countries have the same problem. We just can’t control it,” he says pragmatically.

He admits that foreigners are attracted to the caring attitude of the Filipinos. “Foreigners find us friendly,” he says. “With such a short time of stay in the country, foreigners’ quality of enjoyment here is very high.”

For his part, Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano insists that nobody is selling the country as a sex tourism destination. “We welcome everyone as long as they are legitimate tourists, but we do not condone prostitution,” he says. Prostitution, according to him, is not just a tourism issue, but a social issue that needs to be addressed by everyone, not only by the DoT. “We even discourage it. Families are the type of tourists we are bringing into the country,” he says.

Durano even argues that the increase in tourist arrivals has been helping mitigate the problem of prostitution. “I bet you that with the increase in tourist arrivals, there are now less prostitutes,” he says.

The tourism chief notes that the increase in foreign tourists who spend an average of $90 a day in the country has helped employ a lot of Filipinos in the services sector. Data showed that employment in hotels and restaurants alone grew by 50,000 to 866,000 in January 2006 from only 836,000 a year ago. At the same time, Durano says “KTV” per se is not bad. “It is a place where tourists can unwind,” he says.

Gordon believes that tourism should be the no. 1 industry in the Philippines. Gordon, who filed Senate Bill 2138 or the Tourism Bill that seeks to attract 10 million foreign visitors in the country annually, easily gets emotional when prostitution is discussed vis-á-vis tourism.

“Imagine what 10 million foreign tourists could do to the Philippine economy, when the average international tourist spends $878 during his stay here in the Philippines. That would be almost $9 billion injected into the arm of the economy, or almost P500 billion, practically half the national budget,” Gordon says.

Any fear that tourism will worsen prostitution in the country should not prevent the government from achieving its goal, he says. “Why are we so afraid?” Gordon asks. “We are not going to make any decision based on fear.”

Gordon says the Philippines should take risks, if it really intends to catch up with its neighbors like Thailand and Malaysia, which attract more than 10 million visitors each year. Data from the World Tourism Organization shows that in 2004, Malaysia had 15.703 million tourist arrivals; Thailand, 11.651 million and Indonesia, 5.321 million.

Prostitution is part and parcel of life, Gordon says. It needs to be planned and regulated, but it should not hinder the growth of tourism, he adds. “Prostitution can be found anywhere in the world, not only in the Philippines,” Gordon says. “When I was mayor of Olongapo, we opposed prostitution, but those were real people with jobs.”

Gordon says nothing should stop the Philippines from luring at least 10 million foreign visitors annually. He says the country needs to compete with the likes of Thailand by increasing its budget for tourism and dangling incentives to investors in tourism infrastructures, hotels and resorts.

Two economists from the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P), however, caution the DoT against following the Thailand model. Prof. Winston Padojinog and Prof. Maria Cherry Lyn Rodolfo say the country should move away from sex tourism and toward quality tourism in order to get quality tourists.

Instead of attracting male-dominated tourist groups, the two economists say the country will do better by drawing in family vacationers to the country’s tourist destinations, which are really among the best in the world. Data shows that the average age of foreign tourists in the Philippines was 38 as of 2004, which means it is not getting a lot of its desired tourists - families on vacation.

This is despite the fact that the Philippines has enough attractions other than its women. Among the 10 Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines actually has the most number of world heritage sites.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared the Baroque churches of the Philippines and the historic town of Vigan as world cultural heritage sites and the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park, the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park as world natural heritage sites.

Industry players cite the need for the government to sell these tourist spots and the entire archipelago as a wholesome family destination, where foreign tourists can enjoy the best of nature with their families. They say this can truly offer a wonderful travel experience, and not just satisfy a few carnal desires.

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