World Responsible Tourism Day is officially November 7th and I thought it would be appropriate to do a piece on an issue in tourism that few ever think about – child sex tourism.

When most of us in the global north think about going on vacation, we usually have images in our minds of sun-soaked beaches, cold beers, tropical breezes, rest and relaxation. Little thought is put into the social impact we are having on the destination.

The International Bureau for Children’s Rights (IBCR) was brought to my attention while speaking with a member of UNICEF here in Toronto. As we were discussing the ways the UN was getting more involved in tourism, the IBCR was mentioned and their campaign against child sex tourism. I was connected to one of their representatives in Montreal, Marco Antonio Sotelo, and my education about this complex issue began.

This article will be structured in three tiers: firstly by explaining what the IBCR is doing to put a stop to child sex tourism; secondly, what the travel and tourism industry can do to raise awareness; and lastly, I would like to put this issue into a Canadian context.

Created in 1994, the IBCR is an NGO (non-government organization) that is based out of Montreal, Canada. The organization focuses on promoting the UNCRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child)  amongst the international community. They have received funding from Canada’s International Development Agency (CIDA), to run a two-year project in Costa Rica. The basic premise of this project is to target the informal sector of tourism, educate them on the dangers of child sex tourism, and create community engagement and social change so that the issue will no longer be tolerated in the most touristic areas of the country. Additionally, they raise awareness to Canadian travelers about very strict Costa Rican and Canadian laws, especially those sanctioning the sexual exploitation of children.

What is the informal business sector? Well, we have all had that moment when we’re relaxing on a beach, when an individual, usually older women or child, tries to sell you a product or service – maybe it’s a souvenir, maybe some beer, or even a back rub. These people have no affiliation to a hotel, resort or any established hospitality business, but are using tourism to earn enough income to improve their standard of living. Unfortunately, these informal entrepreneurs are sometimes associated to the larger machine that supports the sex tourism industry. Cab drivers, massage parlours, surf teachers, handicrafts sellers, etc. Might be the ones pointing tourists towards the sex-tourism.

I think it is important at this point to mention that though this issue affects both male and female adolescents (mostly from 14-17 years old) it is mostly in the demographic of individuals that come from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families, poor and migrant workers that come from relatively poorer Latin American countries to Costa Rica to find work. Though Costa Rica enjoys a comparatively high standard of living in the region, the surrounding countries are still struggling. The IBCR plans to change habits in these communities through a series of education and training sessions that will teach families that this behaviour is not acceptable. It seems like the project has a special focus on notions of gender and “masculinity” and changing how men are viewed in the society especially.  Like many Latin cultures, there are misconceptions in place that tolerate actions associated with masculinity and machismo. Sometimes this privilege even includes the satisfaction of sexual needs. A cornerstone in this campaign is focused on changing male behaviour to be less of a risk to those around them.

In addition, the project hopes to train and educate the communities around the touristic areas on how to identify and report cases of sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in the communities where these people live. Another way the IBCR is planning to work with local authorities is to map in the province of Guanacaste (north of Costa Rica) the specific locations where child sex tourism incidents take place and also the profiles of those engaging in child sex tourism. Since in many of these cases sexual exploitation is partnered with other illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, this mapping could help combat the dark underside of Cost Rican society.

Though the IBCR has a direct partnership with the Fundacion Paniamor in Costa Rica and a good sense of the cultural and political environment, they are working on an issue that cannot be changed through their efforts alone. Personally, the most interesting thing that Marco shared with me during our interview was the fact that this movement against child sex tourism started locally. The Costa Rican tourism industry started seeing online international sex guides increasingly promote Costa Rica as a destination of choice for sex tourism.

Fearing not only the social and business implications of this label, but also the safety of those children involved, the domestic tourism industry banded together to fight this. By working with NGO and government representatives, the travel community is working hard to combat this image and issue.

This issue, sadly, is not localized to Costa Rica and is indeed world-wide, arising in various countries such as Thailand, Brazil and Mexico. As a way to achieve global commitment, the UN and various partners have come together to create “The Code.”

“The Code” is a global partnership tool to stop the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents related with travel and tourism. It holds travel agents, tour providers, airlines, hotels and anyone else involved in the tourism trade to play an active role in stopping this issue. Based on the revenue your organization earns, a membership fee is paid and those who consign to “The Code” promise to, among other things, train their staff to recognize and appropriately deal with signs of potential child sex tourism in their presence. They hold the partners that they work with to this same standard on the threat of cancelling all contracts if any tenet of “The Code” is broken. With members in Japan, USA, Brazil and strong support from the Scandinavian countries, where The Code originated, the world seems to be taking the steps needed to end this. But there is one country I feel is not doing enough… Canada.

From what I learned from Marco, only two travel organizations have signed up in the whole of Canada. I am proud of my country, and completely understand that with all the focus on green, social and economic issues local industry may feel overwhelmed, but this is no excuse not to take an issue like this seriously. As Canadians, we like to view ourselves as progressive, peaceful and internationally aware, but our lack of commitment to this may show that we still hold some draconian fear of sex or at the very least apathy and disinterest in the issue. Several Canadians have been investigated for these crimes against children abroad, but few convicted by Canadian law. Signing “The Code” would hold these people accountable and strengthen Canada’s commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism.

Since when is looking after those who can’t look after themselves a bad thing? We are speaking of children, who better to protect? The prospects of paying for training and researching one’s partners should not be enough to deter signing of “The Code”. What harm is there in an airline training attendants to target and react to potential sex tourism, or travel agents vetting their contracts? Canada is a part of this problem and we should be doing our best to advocate for correcting it.

In case this article has inspired or convinced that you should be part of this movement, please contact the IBCR, since they are “The Code” national representative in Canada. Be a part of the change and spread this article, and if you know a local tour provider, educate them on this movement. We as Canadians are better than this! Let’s prove it to the world!

Share This:
the author

Michael Soncina is an editor of Travel Culture Magazine and a sustainable tourism enthusiast from Toronto, Canada. He has lived in Singapore and spent time WWOOFing and working with youth groups as a volunteer throughout Japan. His love for adventure has taken him to Central Asia where through a series of good and very bad experiences fell in love with the region. Michael has become a self-made ambassador for eco and sustainable travel, particularly in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. When he is not traveling he is defining himself as the executive director of Sonchy's Adventure, a responsible tourism marketing and media company.

  • Jonathan Stein

    great article Mike…. fact sex tourism sucks…. myth…. you can’t change sex tourism

    • Mick Sonchin

      You are right Jon. We need to try especially when we are talking about children. Education will lead to something . Plus what the IBCR is doing is a great! I am sure the impact in a couple years will be substantial! I have faith. Thanks for the comments man u are super!

  • Tavian Ray

    This is a very interesting article. The Code is an interesting step Canadian Travel Agencies can take to combat the sexual exploitation of children.
    To the author, please be conscious of of the language you use to portray other cultures. For example, you write “Like many Latin cultures, there are misconceptions in place that tolerate actions associated with masculinity and machismo…”. Not only does this reinforce negative stereotypes about “Latin” culture, but it also homogenizes the diversity of Latin America, a term created by the West. This also seems to place the blame for child sexual exploitation on the local culture and takes a significant amount of the onus off of those in the West who are evidently the perpetrators of this violence. I think it’s important in topics like this to be aware of (re)colonizing communication. Otherwise, great article!

    • Mick Sonchin

      Tavian Ray, you are right. I apologize for my generalization and I will take this into consideration when writing future articles. I truly appreciate the constructive criticism and will learn from this mistake, my apologies to anyone offended and continue to point out any language missuses. It is very important for myself and those under the same misconceptions.

      As well “The Code” is a global initiative not just Canadian, but sadly Canada is not doing its part. Any travel organization in any country to my understanding can sign up to this. Once again thank you for the constructive comment I really appreciate the feed back.

  • Brandy Bell

    Thank you, Michael for taking the time and initiative to remind us of this very important topic. Travel really does broaden your horizons and make issues like this much more personal.

    • Mick Sonchin

      Thanks so much brandy. Ya sometimes we need to be reminded on how important our impackt traveling really can be!

  • Gilad

    Interesting article and happy to hear that a body like the IBCR exists. Sadly, more Canadian organizations need to adopt “the code.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of individuals or organizations remaining in the dark on the reality of sex tourism rather than deciding to take a stance against it.

  • Matt Dos Santos

    Great article Mike, thanks for making more people aware of this subject.

  • Christoph

    Thank you, very important issue indeed.
    I think that we should tackle these problems much more than in the past by empowering and involving local civil society. Tourists will always by tempted to ignore anything that might spoil their holiday experience and businesses usually prioritize profit over human rights. Only the locals, like families and friends of the victims, have a genuine interest and sufficient motivation to be engaged over a longer time. They just often lack the awareness or the means to make their voice heard.

  • Matt

    To say that people working informally are usually part of sex slave operations seems like a big assumption that is easy to wash over a group of people who may not be fortunate enough to have a corporate job.
    Corporations do seem more trust worthy but are they really? If we lose faith in the common person then what hope do we have?

    To take away any man’s masculinity is to take away his power and birth right. How can this be positive if it means dis-empowering him to woman, thereby forcing him to pay for sex. In many cases this is what happens in our western societies – men become so dis-empowered that they lose what makes them attrative to the opposite sex in the first place. Men pay for women but not for a night, for life – like an expensive car, house, jewelery, it never ends. Interfering in this way brings about nothing but an unhealthy power imbalance between the sexes.

    Maybe instead of following some Code and letting some organizaiton tell us what is right, people can find it in themselves to look at the heart of this issue. This heart contains two parts: one is an economic slavery which turns into desperation; and the other is a lack of a meaningful connection, a distorted relationship between men and women.

  • Thomai

    Interesting article. In my opinion a real change can only be enforced with higher involvement from the goverments of the respective countries. This does not only happen by introducing harder penalties against the offenders, but also by raising awareness.

  • Nihit

    well written piece! kudos!

  • Sheraz

    Great article Mike. Sex Tourism is definitely a burden that many face around the world. I recall having a conversation with a worker in Hong Kong, which was an eye opening experience to the whole scene and the hardships they face. We need more people to address these topics to raise and raise awareness.

  • Benjamin Tan

    Great article! Hopefully more is done to stop this.

  • Dan

    Great article Mike! I look forward to reading and learning more. Keep it up!

  • Kalyn Murdock

    Thanks for this article, I hadn’t heard about “The Code” before. Often all we hear is bad news and problems quickly seem overwhelming. It’s nice that there is something in place that, while not a total solution, is easily implemented and a concrete step in the right direction.

  • Edison

    It’s important to always remember that as the world gets smaller and smaller, as a global community we have the responsibility to extend the same shelter we would provide our own citizens across the borders to the world at large. If we are to be racist, let us be human racist at the very least.

  • Mike Nagoda

    This is an incredibly informative article. I wish we could somehow bring awareness of The Code to Parliament to help pressure Canada into joining. I will be sharing this on Facebook for sure!!

  • Audrey

    Lots of food for thought…