As tourism booms, An Old 'Crisis may resurface

Published: February 13, 2012

As Thailand’s tourism industry gets set to soar again, a regional meeting on the global AIDS pandemic organised here last week has refocused attention on a rarely discussed subject: the extent to which Thailand’s nightlife and entertainment industry contributes to the global spread of HIV/AIDS.

Although the Thai tourism industry robustly touts its contribution to economic growth, jobs and foreign exchange earnings, through copious statistics, far less data is available about how more than 20 million visitors, especially those who will be here purely for the nightlife, could potentially worsen an already bleak situation.

Reports presented at the Asia-Pacific High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Assessment of Progress against Commitments in the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS and the Millennium Development Goals made clear the link between prostitution and HIV epidemic.

Said one of the background reports prepared for the meeting co-organised by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific: "By some estimates, the number of men who have unprotected commercial sex is the single most important determinant of the potential size of the HIV epidemic in the region.

"On a regular basis, an estimated 10 million women sell and at least 75 million men _ between 0.5% and 15% of adult males _ purchase sex in the region. Clients of female sex workers (FSW) make up the largest HIV-affected population group in Asia."

According to the report, "the ongoing demand for commercial sex may explain why the HIV prevalence among sex workers approaches 20% in some countries. In some countries in the region, more than 90% of women acquired HIV from their husbands or male partners."

It adds: "Given the strong link between a country’s HIV prevalence rate and commercial sex, the low level of HIV prevention coverage for sex workers in the region _ estimated to reach only one third of all sex workers in Asia _ poses a significant threat that countries have acknowledged must be addressed."

The report notes that initial efforts to reduce the explosive rise of HIV among female sex workers focused almost exclusively on mandatory condom use by sex workers and their clients. "While these programmes had a significant and rapid impact, a number of critiques have subsequently arisen regarding the sustainability of such an approach," the report said.

It added: "Most significantly, sex worker groups in some countries that have implemented 100% condom use programmes have reported increased violence against sex workers by both clients and partners."

Of the many crises that have struck the Thai travel & tourism industry over the years, the outbreak of HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s-90s was the first. It was largely due to the leadership and anti-establishment courage of anti-AIDS campaigners such as Mechai Viraivaidhya, a former tourism minister, that Thailand’s tourism industry survived.

Over the years, however, the relationship between Thailand’s nightlife and the spread of HIV/AIDS has fallen off the radar screen and been replaced by the steady stream of other economic, geopolitical and environmental crisis. In terms of priorities, it is way down on the pecking order.

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