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Sex tourism on the rise?

It is around midnight and the main tourist drag in the pretty beachside town of Santa Maria, on the island of Sal is starting to fill up for a long night of partying. In one of the bars that line the cobbled street a young woman in a miniskirt dances alone to blaring music while men watch her from their barstools. Out on the terrace, a group of Italian men drink and chat with local women.

Once a quiet town, Santa Maria is now at the heart of a tourism boom, which is fuelling the economies of this tiny archipelago and of Cape Verde as a whole. Sal now attracts 160,000 holidaymakers annually, but this growth has brought concerns that Cape Verde is also becoming a destination for sex tourists.

While there is no official data on sex tourism, there is also no shortage of anecdotal evidence that it is happening, and officials and residents agree it could grow if left unchecked.

Earlier this year, the brutal stoning to death of two female Italian tourists - a third survived by feigning death - shocked these peaceful islands. The murderers were three local young men, one of them the former boyfriend of one of the slain tourists.

The local press hinted at a love affair gone horribly awry and a botched cocaine deal but, whatever the motive, the murders put the spotlight on the phenomenon of rich foreigners having sexual relationships with impoverished locals.

A joint study, published in 2005 by the Cape Verdian Institute for Minors and the Committee for Coordination and Combating AIDS (CCS), related several incidents in which minors had been abused by male tourists in Santa Maria, the Cape Verdian capital, Praia, and Mindelo, on the island of Sao Vicente. In some cases, tourists had asked children to find them under-age girls for sex.

Artur Correia, executive secretary of the CCS in Praia, is reluctant to ring alarm bells about the extent to which sexual tourism is becoming big business in Cape Verde, but he is worried.

"Tourism is growing very quickly, and we need to be prepared so we can prevent an increase in HIV/AIDS," he told IRIN/PlusNews. CCS is already helping tourism training institutions to include HIV prevention in their courses.

Making ends meet

Cape Verde legislation does not penalise prostitution, and the numbers of sex workers operating covertly and overtly in Sal indicates there is a demand for their services.

Although she does not say so, Carla, the young woman in the miniskirt, is a sex worker looking for clients and has spent the last few hours going between Santa Maria's numerous bars and discos.

Carla, 29, and a mother of three, from Sao Vicente Island, initially says she works in a restaurant, but after a few beers sipped through a straw she becomes more candid: "Business has got better for us Cape Verdian girls because the police got rid of all the Nigerian and Senegalese girls recently; there's less competition now."

Many of Sal's more than 17,000 inhabitants have migrated from other islands, as well as mainland Africa, attracted by the tourism and construction boom around Santa Maria. But making a living is often harder than they expected, and some turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

Cape Verdians involved in the sex trade tend to be more discreet about their line of work than foreigners. "We see women from the African coast going onto the streets, working as prostitutes," said Jorge Figuereido, president of Sal's local government administration. "Cape Verdians go to discos, restaurants, and live with foreigners, and it's hard to tell if a relationship is one of prostitution or not."

Sergio Rodrigues, secretary of the Municipal Committee for the Fight against AIDS in Sal, agrees: "You find both Cape Verdian and foreign prostitutes here, mainly in Santa Maria. But, as people from here all know each other, Cape Verdian prostitutes are usually much more hidden about what they do."

By day, Santa Maria is a very different place, with families on package tours enjoying the long, white sandy beaches. As another charter plane lands in Sal's international airport and the tourists queue up at immigration, worries about the potentially negative impact of the tourism industry are the last thing on the minds of holidaymakers.


See also: CAPE VERDE: Tourism boom carries hidden cost of increasing HIV

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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