By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's infamous sex industry is under fire, with the tourism minister pushing to rid the country of its ubiquitous brothels and a spate of police raids in recent weeks on some of the largest establishments providing sex services in Bangkok.
Those who work in the industry say curbs on commercial sex services would hurt a flagging economy that has struggled to recover after political turmoil took the country to the brink of recession in 2014.
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and deeply conservative, but is home to an extensive sex industry, largely catering to Thai men. Hordes of tourists also flock to the bright lights of go-go bars and massage parlours in Bangkok and main tourist towns.
Thailand's beaches and temples have been the poster child for Asian tourism for decades and the country expects a record number of arrivals in 2016.
Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul played down the role of the sex industry in drawing visitors.
"Tourists don't come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture," Kobkarn told Reuters.
"We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone," she said.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but the law is almost invariably ignored. Experts say it will be hard to rid Thailand of an industry that is so entrenched and that provides pay-offs to untold numbers of officials and policemen.
Those trying to promote the welfare of sex workers say Kobkarn's goal is unrealistic.
Her push comes amid an attempt by the country's tourism authorities to transform Thailand into a luxury destination to attract moneyed tourists.
The military government is in denial about the proliferation of prostitution and its contribution to the economy and tourism, said Panomporn Utaisri, country director of NightLight, a Christian non-profit group that helps women in the sex trade to find alternative work.
"There's no denying this industry generates a lot of income," said Panomporn.
There are no government estimates of the value of Thailand's sex industry, or how much of the income from tourism comes from sex tourists.
LURE OF MONEY
There are about 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, according to a 2014 UNAIDS report, compared with 37,000 sex workers in neighboring Cambodia.
Last month, police raided dozens of brothels in major cities in what they said was a routine operation.
Police said they were looking to prosecute venues employing underage and illegal migrant workers, but only one of the venues raided was shut down.
There was no link between the tourism minister's aim to rid Thailand of its sex tourism industry and the raids, a police spokesman said.
The tourism sector accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product and sex worker groups said the minister's vision of a prostitution-free Thailand would dent that.
"The police presence already drives off a number of clients who come to relax or drink at bars," said Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers in Group (SWING), which provides sex workers with free medical care and vocational training.
"Wiping out this industry is guaranteed to make Thailand lose visitors and income."
Many sex workers come from the impoverished northeast and see selling their bodies as a way out of poverty.
One former sex worker from the northeastern province of Maha Sarakham, who declined to be identified, told Reuters she entered Bangkok's sex trade at the age of 19 and earned up to 5,000 baht ($143.14) a night, nearly 20 times the minimum wage of 300 baht ($8.59) per day.
"No one wants to work in this business, but it's fast and easy money," she said.
NightLight and SWING said they would welcome the sex industry's closure if the government had a plan to ensure that sex workers could support themselves without falling back into the business.
"If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support sex workers," said Surang.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)