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Last Updated: Friday, 18 June, 2004, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Sex tourism: Lessons learned in Costa Rica
By Philip Wright
Producer, Child Rescuers

Code of Conduct lesson
Taxi drivers attend a Code of Conduct lesson in Costa Rica

Ordinary Costa Ricans, from taxi drivers to hoteliers, are taking official tourism classes as part of the country's latest attempt to stop the abuse of children by international sex tourists.

The world tourism industry has been accused of benefiting from the child sex trade.

But Costa Rica says it is making a stand.

Child Rescuers
Sunday, 20 June, 2004
2100 BST, BBC Two (UK)

The Central American holiday destination is sending thousands of tourism workers, from hotel receptionists to tour guides, on training courses to get the message across that it is not a good idea to help tourists find under-age girls for sex.

It is part of the Code of Conduct drawn up by the industry and children's rights campaigners.

Costa Rica is the only country so far to adopt it throughout its tourism industry.

We want to make clear that our children are not part of what tourists can buy
Teresita Ramellini, teacher

Taxi drivers are key to the strategy because they are under fire for helping tourists find under-age girls for sex.

In the capital San Jose, there are hundreds of self-employed taxi drivers desperate for any business they can find. Some will take tourists on tours to find under-age girls on the streets or even deliver them to hotels.

Re-education

Erick Vargas works for a large firm ferrying tourists from San Jose. He is keen to stop children being sexually exploited but he says child sex tourists expect taxi drivers to help them.

He said: "When tourists arrive from other countries and get into my taxi, the first question they ask is, 'Where are the girls? Where are the little girls?'"

Costa Rica skyline
If a tourist comes here looking for under-age sex and we say 'no', but someone behind us says 'yes', then they will get that service
Costa Rican taxi driver

His company sent him and his colleagues back to the classroom to learn about the harm child sexual exploitation can do, and how to discourage and even report child sex tourists.

It is run by Paniamor, a local children's charity, and teacher Teresita Ramellini summed up the approach: "We want the tourist to come to our country to invest and spend money, we want them to come with their families. But we want to make clear that our children are not part of what tourists can buy."

But many of Erick's colleagues on the course are sceptical.

One said: "If a tourist comes here looking for under-age sex and we say 'no', but someone behind us says 'yes', then they will get that service. Then the tourist will tell his friends he got it. That is why the service will always exist."

Teresita added: "They are worried they may lose clients. They say: 'Why must I put all the effort in? What are other people doing?' The taxi sector is tough because they are very near to the problem and therefore do not always want to acknowledge it.

Costa Rica wants to use tourism - now its biggest industry - to help lift itself out of poverty. but not by boosting the international child sex trade.

It has introduced tough new laws making sex with anyone under 18 illegal. However, the child sex tourists continue to arrive from America and increasingly, Western Europe.

'Pimping waiter'

Thirteen-year-old child sex trade victim
More than a million children around the world are victims of the sex trade each year (UN estimate)

We stayed in San Jose while making the film Child Rescuers, and found it hard to escape the seedy nightlife - which includes touting children for sex.

We hoped we could find sanctuary once inside our hotel, but during breakfast with the film's cameraman, one of the waiters sidled up with a coffee jug and a strange glint in his eye.

Yes, he did want to top up our coffee cups, but he also had another agenda.

"You guys having a good time?" he said.

He did not know we were a BBC film crew. To him we were just another couple of blokes out to sample the delights of Costa Rica.

"Of course", we assured him, "Costa Rica's a great place."

The young girls will do anything you want... Just let me know and I'll arrange it for you
Hotel restaurant waiter

"Have you tried the nightlife here?" he ventured."If you want anything, you should come to me," he said, as he walked away to get more coffee.

When he returned he was a little more upfront. "I can get you girls", he said.

"What sort of girls?" we asked, wondering if he meant under-age girls.

"Any sort you want. Nice young girls, but experienced. They'll do anything you want. Just let me know and I'll arrange it for you."

He was openly pimping to us in the middle of a plush hotel that is part of an international chain.

He did not want his boss to hear him, but he was not bothered about the poor American family at the next table who were innocently discussing their visit to the rainforest later in the day.

"Just let me know", our waiter concluded with a dirty wink before running off to take new orders from another American couple with young teenage daughters of their own.

Future choices

But what about the Code of Conduct? The message did not seem to be getting through to the likes of our waiter.

Traditional Costa Rican dancers
Costa Rica would like tourists to enjoy the traditional entertainment

We went to meet the Director of the Costa Rican Chamber of Hotels, Ana Gabriela Alfaro, and told her about our pimping waiter.

She said training of hotel staff was just beginning.

She added: "With this training, if you were to come back here in a year from now, most probably things like this will be minimised."

We felt sorry for the unsuspecting families who would book a few days in San Jose, only to find themselves marooned in the middle of the seedy sex industry.

The hotels need to decide just what sort of business they really want. Is it the families flocking to Costa Rica for its eco-tourism and easy-going culture, or the fat, middle-aged sex tourists - some looking for children to exploit?

The Code of Conduct does not allow them both. If they do not deter the sex tourists, they could frighten off the lucrative family trade in the meantime.

Child Rescuers was broadcast in the UK on Sunday, 20 June, 2004 at 2100 BST on BBC Two.

SEE ALSO:
Child Rescuers
27 May 04  |  This World
Read your comments
18 Jun 04  |  This World
Country profile: Costa Rica
04 Nov 03  |  Country profiles


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