Tourism is a social event that involves the interaction between different societies and cultures, with an exchange of values, opinions and lifestyles. Sex tourism is a highly controversial area within tourism studies and encompasses a wide diversity of activities. Some of these are regarded as socially unacceptable, in particular those that involve child prostitution or commercial sex, while other sex tourism activities are seen as mutually beneficial to the people involved. Thus, it is a somewhat complex affair, on the one hand unacceptable, exploitative and with negative implications, but on the other hand acceptable and with positive connotations.
In relation to developing countries there is a tendency to categorise all sexual activities relating to hosts and guests collectively, terming them ‘sex tourism’. The participants are called ‘sex workers’ or ‘sex providers’, ‘sex seekers’ or ‘sex tourists’. Some aspects of sex, romance and love are marketable areas within tourism, with certain destinations promoted as exotic or romantic (for example the Seychelles and Paris), where people can go to enjoy the romantic atmosphere, rekindle romance or look for new romantic liaisons. Some holiday packages (such as Sandals and Club 18–30 holidays) are promoted through images of romance, love and sex. There are also destinations where commercial sex can be obtained, such as Bangkok and Prague, where tourists can holiday and be sure to fulfil their sexual needs. All these types of holiday are vectors for mainstream activities of sex tourism.
Exploitative sex tourism activities such as prostitution and child prostitution are well documented (for example De Albuquerque, 1999; Jeffreys, 1999; Kempadoo, 1999; O’Connell Davidson, 2004; Rao, 1999; Ryan, 2000; Seabrook, 1996) and were for many years the principal focus of research into sex tourism. Tourists, however, cannot be held solely responsible for such activities: the reality is that these commercial activities generally already existed within the local population and sex tourists are simply utilising an existing infrastructure (Bauer & McKercher, 2003).
Holidays are a time when people are able to take on a different identity to the one they express in their everyday life and fulfil dreams, desires and aspirations away from their home environment; for many, this involves a release from the sexual restrictions which they may normally experience. Being away from the home environment and the people with whom we interact every day allows anonymity and the assumption of a different persona. A holiday is a short period during which people may ‘live life to the full’ and not have to consider whether their actions, behaviour and even dress code are socially acceptable. Thus, the holiday environment provides a catalyst for people to engage both mentally and physically in the atmospherics of relaxation, with its underpinning notions of sensuality and sexuality.
This article will consider aspects of the phenomenon of ‘sex tourism’, looking at host engagement in terms of sexual activity, and will touch on its social and cultural impacts from the host perspective in relation to a case study of Kovalam Beach, a beach resort in Kerala, South India.
The research described in this article was an ethnographic study which aimed to understand people’s lives. The methods used were qualitative, rooted in a critical appraisal of respondents’ perceptions and opinions and of real life events. The case study format allowed the critical examination of particular aspects of the social setting through empirical investigation. The study derives from a larger research project which investigated the wider implications of the social and cultural impacts of tourism from a host perspective.