Sex tourism in Costa Rica

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Sex tourism in Costa Rica has been a consequence of the rapid growth of international tourism in the country, and the country is being promoted as a popular destination for sex tourism.[1][2][3][4] Despite the government and industry efforts, child sex trade has been also a problem.[5][6] A study estimated that "up to 10% of tourists who come to Costa Rica engage in sex tourism", with as many as 10,000 sex workers involved, many of whom are immigrants.[7][8] Also it was reported that about 80% of the sex tourists are from the US.[9] This is largely because prostitution is not illegal[citation needed] but many of the activities surrounding it are indeed illegal,[10] such as pimping.[11][12]

History of tourism[edit]

Costa Rica first began development of its tourism industry with the creation of the first private hotel, the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, in 1930. Generally, tourists came from overseas, entering the country through the Port of Limón, then commuting to San José by train. On June 16, 1931, Law 91 was passed, creating the National Tourism Board, which operated until it was replaced by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo on August 9, 1955.[13]

Currently, tourism ranks as Costa Rica’s second highest source of revenue. In 2000, revenue from tourism accounted for 21% of Costa Rica’s total exports. Increasingly, Costa Rica is becoming reliant upon tourism as a source of income; the number of tourists arrivals in 2000 had more than doubled compared to the number of tourists only a decade earlier.[14]


Recently, Interpol named Costa Rica the fastest-growing capital for sex tourism in Latin America.[15] Jacó and San José are two of Costa Rica’s most prominent sex tourism locations. Money made by prostitutes is enough to keep the majority of Jacó’s businesses open during the off season, as it provides a significant economic supplement.[16] Americans are the majority of Costa Rica’s sex tourists, composing 80% of the total number of tourists.[17]


An estimated 9,800 people were living with HIV/AIDS in Costa Rica in 2009.[18] Traditionally, tourism has been cited as a contributor to the spread of HIV, and other such Sexually transmitted diseases. Research has linked sex tourism to the transmission of HIV between worker and client.[19] Teenagers and young adults are the most at risk for infection; presently, people ages 15 to 24 account for over 10% of the number of HIV infected individuals living in Costa Rica.[20]

HIV/AIDS awareness programs[edit]

Since the diagnosis of the first case of HIV in Costa Rica in 1984, the country has run aggressive HIV/AIDS awareness programs. In addition to this, the government has fought to reduce the cost of drugs needed to treat HIV/AIDS patients; since 2003, the government has purchased generic drugs for a much lower cost than other, brand-name drugs.[21] The Roman Catholic Church, however, has opposed the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Health’s efforts to institute HIV prevention and sex education programs. The Church believes that married couples are not at risk for infection because adultery is prohibited. In addition, they feel that the campaign for increased condom use and sex education programs interfere with “Divine Rule.”[20]

Perceptions of prostitutes[edit]

Prostitutes often associate HIV/AIDS infection with violent behavior. The prostitutes interviewed showed a unique and incorrect understanding of HIV/AIDS, in that it was inextricably linked to violence. Prostitutes see violent men as potential sources of infection, by HIV as well as other diseases such as hepatitis.[22]

Illegal activity[edit]

While sex tourism is embraced in Costa Rica due to its economic benefits, there are limits to what is considered lawful conduct. Human trafficking and child prostitution are problems resulting from the rapid expansion of the sex tourism industry that the Costa Rican government has sought to remedy.[16][23] Recently, the Costa Rican government announced the approval of legislation by congress that would increase penalties for trafficking and related activities. The law also creates a fund designed to combat human trafficking. Minister of the Presidency, Carlos Ricardo Benavides, asserted that "Costa Rica sets a good example" though the implementation of this law, and that human trafficking "must be fought by all possible means."[24]

Child prostitution[edit]

Costa Rican Congresswoman Gloria Bejerano cites globalization as one of the factors halting attempts to cease child prostitution, as access to communication and media technologies is widespread. While production and distribution of child pornography is a punishable offense, possession of such materials is not.[23]

The sexual exploitation of children is a significant issue in Costa Rica, and has drawn the attention of the public. Many sex tourists prefer to target children, believing that they are less likely to be infected with HIV. However, children are more susceptible to HIV infection than other age groups. The governmental organization Alianza por tus Derechos (“Alliance for your rights”) pushes for the implementation of new, harsher laws to coincide with the heinousness of the crimes being committed. Very few instances of child prostitution are actually reported to authorities due to the poor categorization of these crimes in legislation.[17][23] Since 2004 the government and the tourism industry have implemented several initiatives to curb child prostitution, including education campaigns among tourist industry workers to report any illicit activity regarding minors.[25] Anyone convicted of buying sex from a minor can suffer prison terms of up to 10 years.[6]

Children find themselves involved in the sex trade through a number of different circumstances: families seeking a better life for their children are tricked by offers from pimps, who later abuse and drug the children to the point of submissiveness, or they can be sold into the trade by neighbors, relatives, or people they considered friends. Abandoned and afraid, these children seldom find their way back home, and the ones who do are usually ostracized from society.[17]

Human trafficking[edit]

According to the 2011 Costa Rica Trafficking in Persons Report, “Costa Rica is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.”[26] Trafficking victims from other countries usually pass through Costa Rica on their way to other destinations in Central and South America. Girls are trafficked from Costa Rica to work as prostitutes in the United States, Canada, and Europe. High profits contribute to human trafficking being an enduring problem. In some cases, earnings of up to $10,000 have been reported for a single trafficking victim. With an estimated 25 to 40 people being trafficked into and out of Costa Rica per week, human trafficking is a large source of revenue.[27] Minors and women trafficked most often for commercial sexual exploitation, and most trafficking victims originate from Colombia, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Guatemala.[28]

In the past few years, 76 victims of human trafficking operations have been rescued in Costa Rica. However, it is nearly impossible to know just how many victims of human trafficking there are in the country. For each person rescued from a human trafficking operation, there are at least 20 cases that go unreported, according to Costa Rican immigration authorities. This estimate places the number of trafficking victims in Costa Rica in the past few years somewhere around 1,500.[29]

Despite attempts by Costa Rican authorities to improve the situation in Costa Rica, their efforts have had little to no effect. Such efforts were the "Law Against Organized Crime" in 2009, and the "Law for Protection of Victims and Witnesses" in 2010. Immigration and the district attorney’s office assert that efforts thus far have been inadequate, as there have only been two human trafficking cases ending in a strict sentence since the passing of these laws. Lawmakers have since redoubled their efforts, unanimously approving the Law Against Human Trafficking, which would raise the maximum penalty of human trafficking to 16 years.[29]

International responses[edit]

The United Nations has been an extremely active force in efforts to prevent human trafficking and child sex tourism in Latin American countries. Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child addresses children’s fundamental right to be protected from sexual exploitation.[30][dead link] The CRC was introduced in 1989 and is currently ratified by all but two of the world’s nations. In 2000, an Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography was introduced. Many of the articles in the CRC concern the sexual exploitation of children, and the rights of children to be protected from such activities.[17]

In 1999, the International Labour Organization Convention coordinated massive efforts to eradicate many forms of child labor, including the sale and trafficking of children, as well as the sexual exploitation of children for pornography or prostitution.[17]

Many countries sought to strengthen existing laws regarding the exploitation of children. Facing pressure from various child welfare groups, the United States passed the PROTECT Act in April 2003. The act made it illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to another country to have sex, or to conspire to have sex, with a minor. The law also raised the maximum sentence of individuals who either engaged in, or attempted to engage in, sex with a minor to 30 years.

Since 2004, World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization operating in nearly 100 countries, has run a campaign to prevent child sex tourism, and to raise awareness of legislation regarding child sex tourism. Under the slogan “‘Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours,’” World Vision launched a campaign to deter child sex tourists in Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil.[30] The campaign, termed the Child Sex Tourism Prevention Project, was conducted in cooperation with various U.S. government agencies. The project sought to deter sex tourists through various in-flight advertisements and brochure, billboard, and other media warning sex tourists that they are subject to prosecution.[17]

Also in 2004, the World Tourism Organization (WTO), in conjunction with ECPAT and UNICEF, headed an effort to encourage American travel agencies to abide by a code of conduct. Under the code, hotel and travel companies commit to establishing a policy against commercial sexual exploitation of children.[17]


Street violence in Costa Rica is on the rise, and prostitutes are particularly at risk. Acts of violence committed towards prostitutes often go ignored. The issue of violence towards prostitutes is not an issue that goes unnoticed by policy-makers and physicians. Rather, many choose to disregard the plight of these women. Women seeking medical treatment or asylum are generally ignored and thought to be deserving of the violence they suffer. Physicians and doctors who were interviewed openly admitted to disliking prostitutes, with one physician stating these women are "an embarrassment to the country".[31]

Police officials have expressed a dislike of prostitutes, and are, according to the accounts of some prostitutes, guilty of committing acts of violence, discrimination, and harassment towards prostitutes themselves. Examples of this include rape, false accusations, disinterest in complaints about abuse, and illegal detention.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Unos 130 sitios de internet promueven turismo sexual Costa Rica" (in Spanish). La Nación. 5 December 2004. Retrieved 16 March 2007. 
  2. ^ Vargas, Otto (4 December 2004). "Agencias ofrecen en el exterior damas para vacaciones eróticas en Costa Rica" (in Spanish). La Nación. Retrieved 16 March 2007. 
  3. ^ Ángela Ávalos (22 June 2008). "Cien personas escapan de redes de tráfico de almas en Jacó" (in Spanish). La Nación. Retrieved 22 June 2008. 
  4. ^ "Costa Rica Draws Sex Trade". The Miami Herald. 13 October 2009. Retrieved 29 October 2011. 
  5. ^ Wright, Phillip (18 June 2004). "Sex tourism: Lessons learned in Costa Rica". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2007. 
  6. ^ a b Kovaleski, Serge F. (2 January 2000). "Child Sex Trade Rises In Central America". Washington Post Foreign Service. Washington Post Foreign Service. Archived from the original on 20 December 2006. Retrieved 20 December 2006. 
  7. ^ Vargas, Otto (7 April 2008). "Red trajo al país más de 400 dominicanas para prostitución" (in Spanish). La Nación. Retrieved 7 April 2008. 
  8. ^ Schifter-Sikora, Jacobo (2006). Mongers in Heaven: Sexual Tourism and HIV Risk in Costa Rica and in the United States. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-3597-4. 
  9. ^ Schmidt, Blake (27 July 2007). "Businesses Say No to Sex Tourism Industry". Tico Time. 
  10. ^ Asamblea Legislativa de la República de Costa Rica. "Código Penal, Ley No. 4573 de 1970 y reformas hasta 26 de febrero de 2002" (PDF) (in Spanish). Retrieved 17 March 2007.  see SECCIÓN III: Corrupción, proxenetismo, rufianería (Articles 167 to 172).
  11. ^ "Promoción de la prostitución: Unos 130 sitios de internet promueven el turismo sexual de Costa Rica" (in Spanish). 7 December 2004. Retrieved 17 March 2007. ...prostitution is not penalized in the country, but a third-party soliciting clients for a prostitute (proxenetismo) is committing a crime  (free translation from Spanish)
  12. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Costa Rica". U.S. State Department. Retrieved 28 September 2007. ...There are no specific laws against sex tourism, which was growing 
  13. ^ "General Framework". Instituto Costarricense de Turismo. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  14. ^ Inman, Crist. "Tourism in Costa Rica: The Challenge of Competitiveness" (PDF). INCAE. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  15. ^ Ercolani, Steve (4 October 2012). "Study Looks at Costa Rica's Sex Tourism Industry". Tico Times. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  16. ^ a b Strange, Cadence (5 July 2012). "The Not So Underground World of Sexual Tourism in Jaco Costa Rica". The Costa Rica Star. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Song, Susan. "Children as Tourist Attractions" (PDF). Global Child Sex Tourism. Youth Advocate Program International. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  18. ^ "Latin America HIV & AIDS Statistics". AVERT. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  19. ^ Romero-Daza, Nancy; Freidus, Andrea (27 March 2008). "Female Tourists, Casual Sex, and HIV Risk in Costa Rica". Qual Sociol. 31 (31): 169–187. doi:10.1007/s11133-008-9096-y. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  20. ^ a b Freidus, Andrea (1 June 2005). "Cuidate: Tourism, drugs, sex and HIV among young people in Monteverde, Costa Rica". University of South Florida Scholar Commons: 1–118. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  21. ^ Rosenblum, Daniel. "A Ray Of Hope: Costa Rica’s Progressive Approach to HIV/AIDS" (PDF). University of Michigan. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  22. ^ Downe, Pamela (May 1997). "Constructing a Complex of Contagion: The Perceptions of AIDS among Working Prostitutes in Costa Rica Subscription Required". Social Science & Medicine. 44 (10): 1575–1583. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(96)00389-9. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  23. ^ a b c Mayedo, Isabel (4 March 2012). "The child prostitutes of Costa Rica". The prisma. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  24. ^ "Costa Rica Passes Law Increasing Punishment for Sexual Tourism and Human Trafficking". The Costa Rica News. 10 October 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  25. ^ Wright, Phillip (18 June 2004). "Sex tourism: Lessons learned in Costa Rica". BBC News. BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2007. 
  26. ^ "Costa Rica Trafficking in Persons Report 2011". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  27. ^ "Costa Rica [PDF download]" (PDF). The Protection Project. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  28. ^ "2008 Human Rights Report: Costa Rica". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. U.S. Department of State. 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2012-12-13. 
  29. ^ a b "Human Trafficking Continues in Costa Rica, as Lawmakers Take a Stand". Inside Costa Rica. 1 October 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  30. ^ a b Tepelus, Camelia (10 March 2008). "Social responsibility and innovation on trafficking and child sex tourism: Morphing of practice into sustainable tourism policies?" (PDF). Tourism and Hospitality Research (8): 98–115. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  31. ^ a b Downe, Pamela J. (2 January 1999). "Laughing When it Hurts: Humor and Violence in the Lives of Costa Rican Prostitutes -Subscription Required". Women's Studies International Forum. 22 (1): 63–78. doi:10.1016/s0277-5395(98)00109-5. Retrieved 17 October 2012.