When United States ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr claimed that 40% of male foreign tourists to the Philippines visited only for sex, the off-the-cuff comment became a diplomatic incident.
Hwever, the Philippine flesh trade catering to foreigners is growing in size and sophistication and by some estimates is starting to rival Thailand as a global sex tourism hub.
Males make up over 65% of all tourist arrivals. A leaked US diplomatic cable identified a number of Philippine sex tourism hubs, including Sabang Beach in Puerto Galera, Mindoro province.
Former labor under secretary Rene Ofreneo recently claimed that the number of Filipinos engaged in the sex trade was likely about the same size as the country's manufacturing workforce of around 850,000 workers. A recent Deutsche Welle special report
claimed that the Philippine sex industry was the fourth-largest contributor to gross national product (GNP).
Economists say that entrenched poverty, where nearly 40% of the population lives on less than US$2 per day according to Asian Development Bank statistics, is a major push factor into the trade. Policy think-tank Ibon Foundation recently recommended that
the government focus on sustainable poverty reduction and additional investments in public education, health, housing and infrastructure to curb the burgeoning sex trade.
Many young Filipino girls end up in so-called KTV bars, nightclubs, restaurants and massage parlors, a number of which are fronts for prostitution dens where customers can have sex for a fee ranging from US$20 to $50. Cash-strapped students are also
turning to prostitution to pay their tuition bills or earn extra money to cover their weekly expenses, according to Asia Times Online interviews. Internet-based sexual services are also extending the trade into once remote rural areas.
Activists against the trade, meanwhile, are fighting a losing battle. The most difficult part is bringing people out of it or deterring others from joining it, said Ostrander. He said one of the most challenging issues of combating sex tourism is
providing those in the industry with real options for other work. Can we offer them jobs?, he asked rhetorically. Unfortunately, the answer is no.