The article in the UK Daily Mirror last month, which claimed without evidence that one in five women in Pattaya were prostitutes, has certainly ruffled some feathers in senior Thai bureaucracy. Normally, criticism of Thailand in the foreign popular press is ignored, so what is different this time is not clear. Perhaps it was the wide discussion of the article by Thais in the social media, commenting that the Daily Mirror was not telling them anything new. Or maybe the military-appointed Pattaya City Hall management felt it had to act.
Pattaya Police Chief Colonel Apichai Krobpetch, rightly disputed the dubious Daily Mirror statistics and denied that Pattaya is a world-class sex resort. It is certainly true that Pattaya is no longer the single-purpose, bachelor hot spot it once was. The city and its environs are now awash with five-star condos
and hotels, excellent restaurants and a range of leisure activities to cater for families. Water parks were not built for sex-hungry visitors.
The former red-light districts have either been bulldozed for redevelopment or have been toned down. Open child prostitution in clubs is now largely a thing of the past, owing to sustained police crackdowns and prosecutions, and adult sex shows are harder to find than they once were. Night-time districts such as Walking Street and Sunee Plaza are nowhere near as popular as they once were and both have vacant properties for rent and lease.
But it is already clear that the crackdown is continuing. Both the civilian district chief Naris Niramaiwong, responsible for licensing premises, and the recently-appointed military-installed mayor, a former police chief in Chonburi, have made it clear that they support more raids on licensed clubs and any premises which appear to offer prostitution and/or drugs. One of the downsides of this approach could be that vice is driven underground, perhaps making even more use of the social media for contact purposes.
Pattaya Today approached a number of foreign tourists and expats in Walking Street and Sunee Plaza to obtain some reaction. A group of Brits drinking in a bar on Walking Street said they had been coming to Pattaya for years, but explained it was no longer the fun experience they once felt here. “The girls are very expensive, the pound has collapsed and the last thing you want on holiday is a crowd of police harassing you at midnight,” said Ken Lee.
At Sunee Plaza, a gay bar district, a German bar owner told us, “You can see for yourself there are lots of for-rent notices here and most of the bars that remain are barely making ends meet.” He added, “Sure, there are gay tourists still coming to Pattaya, but fewer Europeans and more Japanese and Chinese.” As regards Sunee Plaza’s former reputation as a hangout for pedophiles, “You won’t see a single underage boy around here these days.”
The Pattaya police chief has criticized foreign businessmen, especially Brits, for operating sex-orientated businesses. However, our research suggested that Thais owned most of the bars and clubs. It has already become chancy for foreigners to work in the entertainment industry as it is increasingly difficult to obtain a work permit from the Labor Ministry for this type of employment, coupled with those regular checks by the Immigration Police.
It is clearly government policy to try and change Pattaya’s seedy image. But it is possible to throw the baby out with the bath water. Pattaya in 2017 is a good deal less seedy than it was in 1997 or even in 2007. Moreover, there are many other problems to be addressed: street crime, traffic congestion, boiler-room scams, pollution and a variety of rip-offs plaguing the general public.
Pattaya has experienced many transformations since it started out as a recreational destination for US troops in the 1960s and 1970s. By all means clean up Sin City on a rational basis. But for the authorities to act too heavy-handedly – as though sex tourism was the sole issue in the city’s future – could turn out to be a wrong turning for all sorts of reasons. Nobody wants a ghost town.