San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Businesses Say No to Sex Tourism Industry

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

their clients.

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

growth spurt.

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.

Legal Concerns

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

against women.

“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

their infrastructure.

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.

Not Sustainable?

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,”

Benavides said.

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

establishments altogether.

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,”

he said.

Clients as well as travel agencies like

Swiss Travel support the hotel’s decision,

Coto said.

“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

in prostitution.

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

“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.



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