Prostitution continues to be a lucrative business around the world, and, in many countries, whether legal or not, the sex trade generates significant revenue for the tourist industry. Prostitution is legal and regulated in parts of Nevada and the Netherlands, but for many places, including Thailand, the Philippines and the Caribbean, even though it is big business, prostitution remains illegal.
For Iranian nationals traveling abroad, Thailand is one of the most popular destinations — despite the fact that the country is also one of the most dangerous places for tourists. Although it is difficult to calculate exact numbers, a 2012 report revealed that 160,000 Iranians traveled to Thailand in 2011.
And for those Iranians traveling abroad for sex, Thailand is a key destination. “I don’t like spending my holidays with just one girl,” says one 66-year-old-businessman from Tehran. “I’ve been married to my wife for 45 years. Until five years ago, she was the only woman I’d ever been with. She’s great and I don’t have any serious issues with our relationship. I love her and being with her; she’s still good looking and pretty. But I need my space at least once a year, so I travel to beautiful Thailand alone to have different experiences and adventures.” These adventures include paying for sex. He suspects his wife knows about his secret and finds it harmless, though he says they have never discussed it.
The sex industry is constantly evolving, and so is sex tourism, which can be defined as any trip where the traveller’s “primary purpose” is to enter into “a commercial sexual relationship with residents at the destination,” according to The World Tourism Organisation.
“Thailand is a destination for all seasons. We always have a range of tours to the country,” says Nazi, a travel consultant who has worked with Iranian travel agencies based in Tehran for the past six years. “We have different type of travelers. Some of them are families or people interested in nature, but some of them are solo male travellers, or men in a group. Even married men.” When asked if they give a reason for their trip, she says, “No, it’s embarrassing for them, so they don’t mention it. But it’s easy to guess the purpose of their trip, because regular travelers like to explore different places, while they prefer to go to just one city, Pattaya. Also, they ask if they can have a guest in their room.”
Studies have shown that Pattaya is particularly popular with sex tourists. It is similar to other tourist destinations, offering sun, sand and sea — but it is also known for its prostitution, and the infamous Walking Street.
Nazi, like many others, was unaware that prostitution was illegal in Thailand. “Many people think it’s legal and the girls [sex workers] have hygiene cards that show that they are healthy and disease-free. Usually, we don’t discuss these issues with our clients. If they have any trouble, they don’t come to us.” Most tourists have heard about the sex industry in Thailand through friends or through media coverage, but they do not know a great deal about it.
Dangers for Iranian Tourists
Vahid, an Iranian tour guide based in Thailand, says the company he works for regularly encounters Iranian tourists hoping to pay for sex. “As soon as tourists arrive in Thailand, we find out the purpose of their trip. They come to us and ask us about the places that are famous for prostitution. Most of them are unwilling to spend money on visiting attractions. All they want to do is settle down in their hotels and do their business. Many of them face various difficulties and come to us for help.”
“Often they are not regular travelers and this trip is their first experience of being abroad,” says Vahid. “Since they don’t know how to communicate, they get ripped off easily.”
Meysam, an Iranian who traveled to Pattaya in January 2014, gave his account of being duped. “The first day of my trip, I met a girl near my hotel and we went to a nightclub she suggested. I had a few drinks… I can’t recall what happened. When I woke up, my wallet and cash were gone. Thai police couldn't help me, but I was lucky because I had left some cash in the safety box in my room.”
There have been a number of reports of Thai women putting sleeping pills into the drinks of foreign nationals — most of them men — and then stealing from them. On average, one case is reported every week in Pattaya, with many other incidents going unreported because victims are ashamed. In some cases, these crimes have led to fatalities, and authorities have had limited access to information that could help their investigations. “Last summer, we found the body of one of our clients, a 22-year-old boy, in his hotel room. His death was reported as a drug and alcohol overdose. All his assets and cash were gone,” says Vahid.
International sanctions against Iran prevent Iranian tourists from having any type of international bankcards. So Iranians traveling abroad are forced to carry cash — making them more vulnerable.
“The Iranian embassy in Thailand doesn’t help Iranians if they are robbed,” says the tour guide based in Thailand. “When we call them, they usually say it’s none of their business, and that tourists have to take care of themselves. At the police station, we’ve seen other foreigners seeking and receiving help from their embassies. The Iranian embassy only provides a written letter for a person who loses their passport.”
Poverty is one of Thailand’s most serious issues, and wherever there is poverty, there is also prostitution. For many poor women in Pattaya, prostitution is often the only option for earning a living.
As a consequence, there is an increase in the number of people with HIV in Thailand. A UNICEF report describes how, despite a gradual drop in HIV in the country over the past two decades, new infections are on the rise — especially among young people in the sex industry.
This poses a risk for married men who travel from Iran to Thailand to have sex with local girls and women, who could then transmit the virus to their wives and future children.
Unfortunately, official travel guides for Iranian tourists traveling abroad do not exist. People are forced to use information they have gathered from friends or relatives. Rather than facing up to the problem and finding a solution, Iranian authorities ignore the issue, often criticizing anyone who chooses to holiday in Thailand. In fact, Iranian MP Mousa Ghorbani called for the government to ban holidays to Thailand in an attempt to minimize increasing numbers of Iranians infected with HIV.
Family Values, Sexual Freedom and Breaking the Rules
“Thailand is not the only destination for solo male travelers,” says tour agent Nazi. “Some prefer to go to Turkey, Dubai or Armenia.” Both Turkey and Dubai are popular with Iranian travelers. In 2013, more than 1.2 million Iranians traveled to Turkey and 277,000 to Dubai. However, reports suggest that the number of sex tourists traveling to these destinations remains small.
“Usually, there aren’t that many Iranian single male travelers on tours to Turkey,” says Samira, an Iranian living in Turkey who works for an Iranian tour operator. “Some of them think that in Turkey there is more freedom because there it is not mandatory to wear the hejab there. They don’t know the real rules and expect Asian workers in their hotels to provide sexual favors in exchange for money. These are issues that we then have to take care of.“
Although in theory anyone can be a sex tourist or pay for sex, irrespective of gender, age, or educational level, in reality, it is mainly men that engage in this practice. It is a trend that shows no sign of reversing and which has detrimental effects on people’s security and health, as well as creating an environment where gender equality continues to be unrealized.
In Iran, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is illegal. A woman’s virginity remains a symbol of innocence and purity in Iranian society. Studies have shown that “many sex tourists visited Pattaya because sex was unavailable in their country” and even that “when men couldn’t get what they wanted at home, they traveled abroad.”
“People who live in a country with many restrictions and limitations are more vulnerable,” says Jalal Ljadi, a sociology professor based in France. Ljadi says that many young people in Iran suffer from confusion when it comes to sex. They have access to extremely liberal sexual attitudes thanks to the internet, television and other media. Yet they live in a very traditional society. "When they get away from these restrictions, they want to be free and experience every kind of freedom. Those who are not strongly and solidly connected to these values may break the rules when they’re away from the pressures of Iranian society. So we see many married men traveling for sex, taking full advantage of every opportunity to feel free of these limitations.” As a result, Ljadi says, “Family values in Iran are at risk.”