Posted by Sebastian Castaneda on Aug 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Developing Colombia’s sex tourism industry

Colombia news - prostitutes

Three months ago, Colombia Reports editor Adriaan Alsema was visiting the when he encountered a lively conversation about the worsening insecurity in Colombian main cities. He wrote an opinion article questioning the morality of their actions. Nevertheless, it is also crucial to ponder how cultural factors and government actions (or lack thereof) are contributing to developing Colombia’s sex tourism industry. Recent incidents in Cartagena where tourists engaging in underage sex have astonishingly and cunningly avoided jail time should raise the alarms to how close Colombia is to becoming the Thailand of the Americas.

Colombia has all the attributes to becoming like Thailand as an important touristic destination, including a sex tourism hub. There are three elements that have nurtured Thailand’s sex tourism industry. First, Thailand has a comparative advantage (at least regional) in beautiful women that European and North American sex tourists find appealing. Second, there is an internal culture of male-chauvinism and prostitution. Third, the government has adopted, and in many cases facilitated, this industry by turning a blind eye. Naturally, all these factors are mediated by the economic situation.

Colombia scores particularly high on all these aforementioned elements. Foreigners are usually mesmerized by the beauty of Colombian women as well as their distinctive personalities, which contrast with their counterparts in developed countries. The attributes of men are also appreciated, especially by North American women, who enjoy landing in San Andres islands to engage in romantic and steamy holidays with local boys. However, Colombians are the most gregarious about the beauty of Colombian women. The reactions and number of newspaper articles (including Colombia Reports) about Miss Colombia being denied the chance to be among the 15 finalist in Miss Universe says it all.

Colombian culture is more male-chauvinist than Thai culture and prostitution catering to the local market is a well-known thriving industry. The development of the internal sex industry is such that each social class satisfies its urges in a distinct manner. Be it with traditional street prostitutes, in brothels or with the more classy “pre-pagos” (escorts). The culture of quick and (arguably) easy money makes prostitution a more prevalent form of raising (extra) money in Colombia than in other countries, while the belief that prostitution is like any other past-time provides plenty of clients.

The government has recently reinforced a law against sexual exploitation of the under-age. However, recent developments demonstrate that the justice system is not prepared to face the realities of such economic activity. In recent months there have been two prominent cases of sex tourists engaging in underage sex, but were set free due to lack of interpreters. It is somewhat understandable when the sex tourist comes from Israel. However, when the tourist’s native tongue is English the shortcomings of the justice system are evidently appalling.

The first two elements (beauty and culture) that have catapulted Thailand’s sex tourism industry to be a significant foreign exchanges earner are well developed in Colombia. The third element, government policies, is not as apparent, but the lack of more drastic measures to tackle prostitution’s side effects is more dangerous. Colombia’s largely moralistic, albeit hypocritical, population may not approve of regulating this industry as it is in other countries. Nevertheless, clear and enforceable guidelines are needed because prostitution is not the problem. The trouble starts when unregulated sex tourism leads to underage prostitution, human trafficking, and an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases.

The level of sex tourism in Cartagena is already alarming when compared with past years. According to Mayerlin Vergara, who works for Fundacion Renacer (NGO working to prevent the sexual exploitation of children), half  the people on Cartagena’s streets after certain hour at night are connected to the sex trade. Moreover, Fabian Cardenas, regional director of the same foundation, claims that “the simple fact of looking like a tourist means you’re likely to be offered these things [sex with adults and children] by people working in the informal tourism industry.” Cardenas estimates that there are 650 children working in Cartagena’s sex trade.

The government has been genuinely active at developing the different areas in the tourism industry and results have been extraordinary. However, the rapid development of tourism is out-pacing government regulations and suitable enforcement. Failing to address foreseeable problems may be problematic for the image of the country, which will negatively affect the tourism industry as a whole. But most importantly, a lack of enforcement would be disastrous for the well-being of the most vulnerable.