Tired of the general scene of debauchery
driven by Costa Rica’s booming sex tourism
industry, a small but growing number of
Costa Rican tourism businesses are taking
matters into their own hands.
But some of them are finding that
implementing a controversial ban on prostitution
comes with a cost.
“It’s a decision about social responsibility,
not just business,” said Karla Salazar, the
manager of Grupo Marta, which owns two
Best Western hotels that have banned “prostitution-
related activities” on their premises.
The policy involves training employees
how to identify prostitution, posting “No to
Prostitution” signs around the hotel and
denying entry to suspected prostitutes and
Not only do companies like Grupo Marta
claim to be losing money to the tune of tens of
thousands of dollars a year by denying entry
to those it suspects might engage in prostitution,
but they are also drawing fire from critics
who question the legality of a policy that
bans prostitution since the act is legal here.
“Any woman who wears too much
makeup would be a suspect,” said Jacobo
Schifter, a professor emeritus of the National
University in Heredia, north of San José. His
recently published book “Mongers in
Heaven,” written in English, profiles the sextourism
industry in Costa Rica.
Along with other value-added tourism
niches that have seen a surge thanks to
Costa Rica’s booming $1.7-billion-a-year
tourism industry, sex tourism is enjoying a
Up to 10% of tourists who come to Costa
Rica engage in sex tourism. There are some
40 Web sites, about 50 establishments and as
many as 10,000 sex workers here, many of
whom are immigrants and many catering to
tourists, according to Schifter’s book.
“Sex workers who cater to tourists are
making more money than the average Costa
Rican doctor, lawyer, professor or even
(President) Oscar Arias,” the book reads.
Schifter, an expert on sexual minorities
and AIDS in Costa Rica, called the effort to
ban prostitution in hotels “ridiculous” and
doubted its constitutionality because it discriminates
“Businesswomen would not be able to
meet in bedrooms and daughters would not
be able to stay with their fathers because
some idiot at the front desk will decide who
is a prostitute and who is not,” Schifter told
The Tico Times in a fiery e-mail response.
“Besides being stupid, I doubt this policy
is legal … since prostitution is legal in Costa
Rica, there is nothing illegal in practicing it
and no reason for discriminating against
those who sell it or buy it,” he said.
Rodrigo Coto, corporate director of the
Best Western Irazú in the northwestern San
José district of La Uruca admitted that identifying
“prostitution-related activities” isn’t
easy, and called it a “major process.”
The Best Western Irazú, a Grupo Marta hotel,
banned prostitution more than a year ago.
“It’s not easy to do when you have a
drunken guest at the front desk,” Coto said,
adding that it involves not only educating
security and reception personnel, but also
coordination with taxi drivers to identify prostitutes.
“And sometimes they’re wrong,” he admitted.
But he defended the legality of the policy.
“We know (prostitution) is legal, however
the law protects us in denying the right of
admission,” Coto said.
Marvin Carvajal, professor of constitutional
law at the University of Costa Rica
(UCR), said hotels do have the right to
decide what activities take place inside their
establishments. For instance, hotels are
allowed to ban activities such as smoking,
drinking or large events that could harm
In theory, he said, they should have the
right to limit prostitution in their businesses,
but not in any way they want.
“What they can’t do is discriminate”
against specific groups, he said, explaining that
hotels should be careful because denying entry
to clients based on dress or appearance could
be seen as discrimination against certain
He referred to two rulings by the
Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme
Court (Sala IV) that sided with clients who
were denied entry. In one case, a person with
long hair was denied from entering a shopping
center, and in another case a black
woman was denied entry to a discotheque.
Charles Greer, a Californian who wrote
an online electronic book (e-book) about
the year he spent in Costa Rica as a sex
tourist, said he noticed some hotels
“becoming unfriendly” to sex tourists on
his trip to San José last year, a big change
from three or four years ago.
“They had decided to promote more of a
family atmosphere and had changed their
focus to ecotourists and normal, straight
travelers. As they are almost always fully
booked these days it seems like the change is
working for them and is probably spreading
to other hotels,” he said.
But some prostitutes have figured out
ways to get past security at hotels that are
enforcing more restrictive policies, he said.
“A lot of the hookers in the Del Rey (a
downtown San José hotel with a reputation as
a hangout for prostitutes and their clients)
carried a cover-up dress in their bag that they
would put on when some guy wanted to take
them to his room” in another hotel, he said.
Though sex tourism may be legal and
thriving,many hold strong personal opinions
about the subject here.
Minister of Tourism Carlos Benavides
said the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT)
doesn’t support sex tourism because it’s not
“Sex tourism is against Costa Rican values
and traditions. That is a type of business
with which the state hasn’t collaborated at
all. Costa Rica already has enough attractions,”
Milena Grillo, director of Paniamor, a
foundation that provides services to abused
children, echoed what the group of more
than a dozen anti-prostitution organizations
is saying: that the sex tourism industry lends
itself to child sexual exploitation.
Sex criminals, she said, often use the same
tourism infrastructure used by sex tourists.
Grillo has led the fight against child sexual
exploitation, and more than 100 tourism
businesses – from hotels to rental car companies
to taxi drivers – have signed or promised
to sign a pact with Paniamor that obligates
them to file a yearly report on their
actions to combat sex crimes against children
(TT, Aug. 18, 2006).
“This is so organized crime can’t take advantage
of the tourism infrastructure,”she said.
But others, such as the travel agency
Swiss Travel, are taking the initiative to the
next step and banning prostitution at their
Swiss Travel signed up with Paniamor
in 2004 “in an attempt to protect children
and adolescents against commercial sexual
exploitation associated with sex tourism.”
The company has put up notices on its
Web site, signs in its offices and on its business
vehicles, as well as on pamphlets for
clients announcing its ban on prostitution.
“We’ve made the necessary effort to be
able to inform our tourists and our suppliers
about our NO to sexual tourism in all
aspects,” the company said in a written statement
prepared for The Tico Times.
“We’re sure that by joining forces
between public and private enterprises and
involving different sectors of our country,we
will be able to mitigate the actions of sex
tourism,” the statement said.
The Price of Prostitution
The Best Western Irazú, which has a casino
and bar that were once popular spots for
prostitutes meeting clients, has taken about
$45,000 a year in losses since banning prostitution,
according to Coto.
Many hotels boost profits by charging
sex tourists double for extra company, Coto
But at his hotel, signs and banners that
read “We do not allow prostitution-related
activities” are posted throughout the hotel,
and employees have been trained on why
and how to deny guests trying to bring prostitutes
back to their rooms.
But Coto doesn’t talk about social
responsibility. Instead, he believes that by
banning prostitution, his hotel will change
its appearance and in the long run cover its
“It’s the appearance of the hotel: prostitutes
robbing clients, the behavior of drunken
clients. Sometimes pimps come to the
hotel; they reproduce keys and take photos,”
Clients as well as travel agencies like
Swiss Travel support the hotel’s decision,
“If I lose two clients, four more will
arrive,” he said.
Grupo Marta first implemented the policy
two years ago at its Best Western Jacó, on
the central Pacific coast.
As beach towns have boomed in recent
years due to a spike in tourism and real
estate industries, so has prostitution on the
beaches, according to a recent report from
the Child Welfare Office (PANI).
Jacó, Coto said, has been “invaded by
prostitution” in the last two decades.
The policy has been a success, he said.
The first five months were tough, he admitted
– the hotel had to turn away as many as
25 clients a night who were allegedly involved
But now, the hotel has a reputation for
denying prostitution, and guests have almost
stopped coming with prostitutes.
“Jacó is also catering to a different type
of tourist. Folks are coming to investigate
and possibly buy one of the expensive condos
that seem to be going up all over
town. Times are changing, and even though
prostitution is still legal, I suspect the tourist
businesses are starting to position themselves
for the time when it is not,” Greer told
The Tico Times.
“Mongering sexpats love the hobby and GFEs.”
These are some of the words, found online and heard in prostitution-friendly bars in Costa Rica, that have become part of the sex tourist lexicon.
Along with the sex tourism industry has come a community of “sexpats” and sex tourists who travel around the region and the world, coming into contact with each other in bars and in posts on sex tourism Web sites such as www.costaricaticas.com.
“What man hasn’t had the dream of kicking back in some foreign country where the beer is cold, the weather is warm and the girls are smokin’ hot and readily available?” reads the introduction of Chuck Greer’s e-book “Livin’ La Vida Loca in Costa Rica: A tale of sex, adventure and self discovery.”
The book is an online guide for sex tourists, with tips on how to get bargain prices, where to find the prettiest girls, and how to hook up with “like-minded guys who engage in ‘the hobby.’” The book is also an account of one year in Costa Rica and experiences in the central Pacific beach town of Jacó, San José and Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast.
The book’s publisher is Monger Publications, which publishes “e-books for the single male traveler.” The company’s logo is an old shirtless man lounging under the sun and a palm tree.
Greer, a U.S. Air Force vet from California, is hailed online as a “veteran expatriate” who has done it all. According to the recently published “Mongers in Heaven” by Jacobo Schifter, a leading expert on sexual minorities and AIDS in Costa Rica, about 80% of sex tourists coming to Costa Rica are from the United States and the average sex tourist here is in his 50s. The recent boom in sex tourism is thanks to the baby boomers, a large generation in the United States that is beginning to retire.
Schifter’s book describes a phenomenon he calls “simulation,” in which sex tourists who come here on vacation get addicted to their escape from reality, to the point that some suffer depression when they go back home.
“GFE” is one of the acronyms in the sex tourist lingo that epitomizes this phenomenon. It means “Girlfriend Fantasy Experience” and is used to describe the purchasing of a prostitute who also acts like a girlfriend.