San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Study looks at Costa Rica’s sex tourism industry

When Eduardo Mora began his preliminary inquiries into the sex tourism industry in Costa Rica for the National University, he started by outlining five types of tourists who come to Costa Rica: outdoor or rustic tourists, working tourists, medical tourists, students and sex tourists. Concerning the latter, Interpol recently named Costa Rica the fastest-growing capital of sex tourism in Latin America. Mora believes there’s a reason.

“The bars and casinos in San José were conceived by their founders and proprietors to work in symbiosis with prostitution,” Mora, author of a recent study on the industry, said. “It has been a successful symbiosis for San José.”

At times, the categories overlap, particularly between sex tourists and working tourists. Since the explosion of tourism at the end of the 1980s in Costa Rica, hotels and other late-night establishments proliferated rapidly throughout the capital. More frequent international flights to Juan Santamaría International Airport, outside the capital, saw other Pacific-bound tourists layover in San José for a night.

Sex tourists in downtown San José maintain a focus on particular establishments, which is different than most other types of tourists. The establishments are specially geared toward this type of tourism, concentrated in easily distinguishable locales and in discernible areas.

“In these areas, there is more English spoken than Spanish, but without excluding nationals as clients, as now in the economic recession they too constitute a small part of the clientele,” Mora said.

Between avenues 1 and 11, and between calles 3 and 15, a conurbation of approximately 10 hotels and 10 bars exist, with some 500 independent sex workers who earn a living from sex tourism. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica.

“This does not include the casinos,” Mora said, “because they do not depend solely on sex tourism.”

These 500 independent sex workers never concurrently occupy the same locations. On a single night, some 200 sex workers may be inside the Hotel del Rey (the city’s most well-known sex tourism establishment and casino), and some 50 at Key Largo, across the street. Smaller establishments may have no more than five women at a time.

According to the study, most sex tourists are North American middle-class men who pay first for sex and later frequent casinos. Clients arrive in downtown San José and stay for two or three nights. Generally, sex tourists undertake their activities at night, although some do so in the afternoon at specialized locations.

“Interestingly,” Mora said, “the sexual tourism industry distributes its economic benefits widely.” The approximately 500 providers of sexual services earn up to $40,000 daily. In one day spent in downtown San José, the city sees some 400 sex tourists, with most providers charging $100 an hour.

The Hotel del Rey, with its three internal bars and colonnaded lodging, “plays a major role as facilitator for sex tourism in San José,” Mora said. “Various other hotels and bars operate as satellites, and their businesses would be very different without this hotel. Sexual tourism would be unimaginable without the Del Rey, as the world would be unimaginable without the French Revolution,” Mora added.


Photo: Tico Times

The study also reveals that most sexual tourists do not frequent museums or purchase artisanal goods, or contract tours. The industry does provide a significant economic boost for sites frequented in the company of sex workers, like thermal hot springs in the north, as well as other bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Many bars, aside from providing sex workers in plain sight for patrons and tourists, “provide free intermediary services between tourists and sex workers,” Mora said. At the Sportsman’s Lodge, in the quiet, upscale neighborhood of Barrio Otoya, it is not unfamiliar to see men contract services from the bar only to retire to a number of back rooms.

Does this activity contribute to the illegal trafficking of women? Mora’s study did not focus primarily on this aspect, but he did mention that there was evidence to suggest the laissez faire environment provided by Costa Rican law could lead to cases of trafficking.

On May 10, Judicial Investigation Police responded to various complaints by women working at San José club Atlantis, who accused employers of forcing them to offer sexual services to patrons. Three men were arrested on charges of human trafficking.

The owner of the club, a U.S. man, was not in the country at the time of the raid, and Interpol has issued an alert for him.

The women from Atlantis allegedly were hired as dancers, but forced into prostitution, according to the criminal complaint. The raid, in addition to finding Colombians, Dominicans and Russians, also turned up an assault rifle. Tatiana Vargas, a spokeswoman at the Prosecutor’s Office, said the investigation is ongoing.

While the government of Costa Rica has made modest improvements to its law against human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department, the country still does not comply with the minimum anti-trafficking standards.

The office for Care and Protection of Victims of Crime (OAPVD) has begun to provide emergency services as well as basic and psychological health assistance to victims of trafficking. The opening of the OAPVD was a result of a law adopted in 2009 with the purpose of “receiving and assessing requests, and establishing necessary protection levels for witnesses and victims of crimes.”

Although the unit for human trafficking and crimes against persons within the OIJ reported investigating 23 human trafficking cases, the numbers of those cases actually prosecuted has not been released, according to the U.S. State Department.

However, despite the concerns of human rights groups and foreign governments of Costa Rica’s growing popularity as a sexual tourism destination, little is likely to change.

As Mora’s study points out, and as he reiterated via email, the tourism industry in Costa Rica, and its hotels, bars and casinos, “are structured this way in downtown San José to be a center and agent of sexual tourism.”

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