In recent years several European countries alongside Canada and Israel have adopted the so-called Nordic model of prostitution legislation to try and reduce the risk of sexual exploitation. While the reforms directly affect the regulation of the domestic sex market, their effects may also spill over to other outcomes in nearby areas and internationally – for example affecting sex tourism flows. Making use of data on tourism flows and Google searches, a new study examines the causal effect from the implementation of the reform in four different countries on sex tourism in popular destinations. The findings indicate that domestic reforms increase sex tourism, calling for the design of policies to account also for these adverse effects.
Since 1999, when Sweden introduced the so-called Nordic model of prostitution legislation, similar legislation has been introduced in Canada, Iceland, Ireland, France, Norway, and most recently Israel. While the legislation design differs between countries (for an overview see Perrotta Berlin and Spagnolo, 2019), the common foundation is to effectively criminalize the purchase but not the selling of sexual services. The introduction of such reforms aims at battling human trafficking and reducing the risk of exploitation. While the effect from the asymmetric prostitution legislation has been found to increase rape incidence in Sweden (Ciacci, 2018), when it comes to the sex market the Nordic model is mainly thought to affect it in two contrasting ways. Firstly, it may suppress domestic supply, which could result in people travelling to destinations where prostitution is not criminalized. Secondly, it might affect the general view on prostitution (Kotsadam and Jakobsson, 2011), thus reducing domestic demand as well as international sex tourism.
Sex tourism is associated with human trafficking, child exploitation and increased spread of sexually transmitted diseases (Herold and Van Kerkwijk, 1992; Brooks and Heaslip, 2019; Newman et al. 2011). Despite this, few studies have explored the impact of prostitution laws on the practice – in part due to measurement difficulties.
This brief presents evidence from a forthcoming paper by Perrotta Berlin and Latour on sex tourism patterns following the implementation of the reform in four different countries.
Quantifying Sex Tourism
Perrotta Berlin and Latour use tourism patterns and Google searches to quantify sex tourism flows, in order to evaluate the effect from changes in prostitution legislation in Canada, France, Ireland and Norway. Specifically, they use data on the number of monthly tourist arrivals to Thailand and The Philippines, and weekly Google searches originating from the above-mentioned reform countries for popular sex-tourism and other tourism destinations, including attractions within cities. German tourism data and Google searches originating from France as well as Google searches originating in the US are used to estimate the effect on sex tourism to bordering countries (France to Germany and US to Canada, respectively). To evaluate the respective effects, they identify treated and control groups for each considered setting, and proceed to compare data between these groups before and after the reform (in line with the so-called difference-in-differences specification, as pioneered by Card and Krueger, 1994). In the following sections, each of these specifications and the subsequent results are discussed.
Evident Spillover Effects
Thailand and The Philippines
For Thailand and The Philippines, monthly data was available on tourist arrivals differentiated by country of origin from 2013 to 2020 and from 2008 to 2020, respectively. The underlying assumption is that, absent a prostitution legislation reform in the four considered countries (Canada, Ireland, France and Norway), the tourism flows from the country in question to Thailand and The Philippines would have remained the same over time. Thus, the change in the number of tourist inflow (out of which an unknown number are sex tourists) from the country in question – when compared to the number of tourists from other countries used as the control group – can be interpreted as a causal effect from the legislative reform on sex tourism.
The results show that, when compared to tourists arriving from other countries, the number of tourists arriving from one of the countries having recently implemented the Nordic model increased by 0.312 and 0.158 standard deviation points for The Philippines and Thailand respectively. Figure 1 below illustrates the results from an event study specification, in which the reform dates in the four different countries are aligned at 0, depicting how the increase is spread over the two years following the reform.
Figure 1. Number of tourists before and after the reform, The Philippines to the left and Thailand to the right.
In Germany, the legislative status of prostitution is determined at the level of municipality. For the analysis, German municipalities where prostitution is to some extent legal were considered to form the treatment group and municipalities where it is illegal constituted the control group. The outcomes of interest were i) tourists travelling to German municipalities of interest, and ii) Google searches from France for the same municipalities.
The analysis shows an increase in foreign tourism to the treatment municipalities following the implementation of the Nordic model of prostitution legislation in France. At the same time, no changes in domestic tourism was detected. The conclusion that the increase in foreign tourism is driven by an increase in French tourists, by which one could then argue the implemented reform to increase cross-border sex tourism, was validated by the analysis of French Google searches. In these data it can be seen that distant German municipalities where prostitution is legal become relatively more interesting in French Google searches after the reform compared to municipalities where prostitution is illegal.
Figure 2. Searches of German municipalities originated in France relative their distance from the French border.
Data on Google searches for Canadian municipalities from one year before to one year after the reform in Canada were considered for the analysis. Searches originate in different US states, which also differ in the extent to which purchase of sexual services is legally punishable. The length of imprisonment in each US state determines whether a state was considered treated – when the length of imprisonment equals or exceeds that in Canada following the reform – or control. Results show that after the introduction of the Canadian reform, Google searches for Canadian municipalities dropped, in particular, in US states with high punishments for purchase of sexual services – most likely those where sex tourism to Canada used to originate before the reform. The results from the event study is depicted in Figure 3 below.
Figure 3. Number of searches of Canadian cities before and after the reform, deseasoned.
Sex Tourism Destinations
Finally, Google Searches for sex tourism destinations were considered as the outcome variable with the underlying idea being that – in the absence of a legislative change in the four considered countries – the difference in number of searches for sex tourism vs tourism destinations would have been the same over time. Sex tourism destinations were defined in two alternative ways: first, a list of popular destinations was selected within countries where prostitution is legal; second, this list was augmented with information from websites that list popular destinations for sex tourism, regardless of the legal status of prostitution in that country.
The results from this analysis are less clear, varying with the definition of sex tourism destinations and with the country of origin. But by and large they showed, if anything, that the interest in sex tourism destination countries decreased after the reform. This might indicate a change in attitudes towards lower acceptance of sex trade in general in the countries where the reform was implemented.
Prostitution legislation reforms affect the domestic sex market and have potential cross-border and international spillover effects. One such impact from criminalizing the purchase of sexual services domestically is increased levels of sex tourism, which might in turn impose adverse effects on the destination countries.
Filling a research gap by studying the effect from introducing asymmetric prostitution laws on sex tourism, Perrotta Berlin and Latour find evidence suggesting that harsher domestic regulation, while potentially changing attitudes in the general population (as indicated by Google Searches) also, in specific cases, increases, the outflow of tourists to destinations with less stringent laws.
After the introduction of the Nordic model, Norway has imposed legislation prohibiting their citizens to purchase sexual services even in countries where it is legal and implemented awareness campaigns on the detrimental effects of sex tourism on local populations. Given that sex tourism is associated with human trafficking, child exploitation and increased spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the results call for other countries to follow suit with domestic prostitution legislation taking on a more global approach to achieve greater effectiveness.
- Brooks, A. and Heaslip, V. (2019). Sex trafficking and sex tourism in a globalised world. Tourism Review, 74(5): 1104-1115. https://doi.org/10.1108/TR-02-2017-0017
- Card, D. and Krueger, A. (1994). Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. American Economic Review, 84(4): 772–793, September https://ideas.repec.org/a/aea/aecrev/v84y1994i4p772-93.html
- Ciacci, R. (2018). Banning the purchase of prostitution increases rape: evidence from Sweden. https://ideas.repec.org/p/pra/mprapa/100393.html
- Herold, E. S. and Van Kerkwijk, C. (1992). Aids and sex tourism. AIDS society, 4(1):1/8.
- Kotsadam, A. and Jakobsson, N. (2011). Do laws affect attitudes? an assessment of the norwegian prostitution law using longitudinal data. International Review of Law and Economics, 31(2):103–115. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0144818811000196
- Newman, W., Holt, B., Rabun, J., Phillips, G. and Scott, C. (2011). Child sex tourism: Extending the borders of sexual offender legislation. International journal of law and psychiatry, 34:116–21. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.02.005
- Perrotta Berlin, M. and Spagnolo, G. (2019). The Nordic Model of Prostitution Legislation: Health, Violence and Spillover Effects. FREE Policy Brief. https://freepolicybriefs.org/2019/04/21/the-nordic-model-of-prostitution-legislation-health-violence-and-spillover-effects
- Perrotta Berlin, M. and Latour, C. (2023). Cross-Country Impacts of Prostitution Legislation: Evidence from Reforms in five Countries. Unpublished manuscript.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Anybody traveling on the Georgian countryside will be astonished by the pace of development. Mestia, the capital of Svaneti, resembles one big construction site. The new concrete road from Zugdidi promises to shorten the travel time to 2 hours. A whole network of ski lifts is currently being planned, carrying a promise of turning Svaneti, a long-isolated region of Georgia, into the Switzerland of the Caucasus.
Mestia and Svaneti are representative of a broader effort by the Georgian government, assisted by international financial institutions, to develop the Georgian tourism sector. This has mainly involved infrastructure projects and tax breaks to encourage private investment in the tourism industry. A very partial list of touristic destinations that have received or are receiving a major facelift includes Old Tbilisi, Mtskheta, Signagi, Kutaisi, Gudauri, Mestia, Batumi, Kobuleti and Anaklia.
Tourism is one of Georgia’s main exporting sectors and earns hard currency and helps to reduce the current account deficit. As a labor intensive industry, it helps to create a lot of formal and informal jobs (particularly in the periphery where they are most needed). The growth in tourism also spurs business development in many related sectors of the economy – agriculture, transportation services, arts and crafts to name just a few.
Georgia is not the only country in the world riding on the wave of tourism expansion. Tourism is currently the fastest growing sector in the global economy, particularly important for developing countries. According to UNWTO tourism barometer, the flow of foreign tourists into developing countries increased by 4.5% in 2011 compared to the previous year. The rate of increase stands at 9% for Central and Eastern European countries.
For Georgia, however, the growth of tourism has been truly spectacular. According to the Georgian Border Security statistics, the number of foreigners visiting Georgia during the first 10 months in 2011 increased by 42% compared to the same period last year. While not reflecting the actual number of tourists (as opposed to foreigners working in Georgia and buyers of re-exported cars), these data illustrate a steep upward trend. Even under most conservative assumptions, the total number of border crossings by foreigners will reach about 2.6 million by the end of 2011, which is 28% above the 2010 level.
Since 2004, incoming tourism has expanded at an impressive average rate of 32% per year, nearly doubling every three years. A simple (simplistic) extrapolation suggests that in four more years, by 2015, Georgia may be receiving more than 5million tourists a year. Is this a realistic estimate? Would it be a blessing or a curse?
What the border crossings statistics conceal is that Georgia remains a very expensive destination, especially during the short high season. According to Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index for 2011, Georgia is ranked 73rd among 139 countries, the same ranking as in 2009. In particular, Georgia ranked 82nd on information and communication technologies, 105th on air transportation infrastructure and 94th on general infrastructure. Overall, Georgia does better than its South Caucasus neighbors Armenia (100th) and Azerbaijan (87th) but worse than Russia (53rd) and Turkey (50th).
At present, tourists are willing to pay a significant premium to satisfy their curiosity for this Eastern outpost of Western civilization. Despite high prices and mediocre quality of services, Georgia has so far been able to maintain its attraction as an island of democracy; exotic, underexplored and yet secure location with good food and wine. However, as the country enters a period of two closely watched elections in 2012 and 2013, what will be at stake, among other things, is Georgia’s status as a destination of choice for investors, donors, and tourists. As far as mass tourism is concerned, a setback in the global public relations battle could bring into play the “value for money“ factor, making further expansion in the sector more tightly related to infrastructure and service improvements.
Slower growth in tourism may be a blessing in disguise. From the purely economic point of view one has to consider the impact of tourism on long-term economic growth. Unfortunately, tourism – like many other labor intensive service industries – has little potential for substantial productivity growth: it takes about the same amount of labor to cook one khachapuri today as it did in the 19th century. As wages are typically tied to productivity this means that tourism has little potential for long-term income growth. Wages in tourism may eventually increase – a phenomenon known to economists as “Baumol’s cost disease” – when other sectors improve their productivity and start competing for workers with the tourism industry.
Thus, the Georgian government should be advised to worry, not about the sheer number of tourists, but rather the amount of money the tourists spend in the country. According to this view, Georgia should strive to increase the share of relatively wealthy tourists from Western Europe and North America. These tourists account for a meager 3.6% of total border crossings by foreigners in the first 10 months of 2011. A closely related goal should be to smooth the sharp seasonal fluctuations currently plaguing the industry. High season tourism (mainly from the CIS) at “peak load” prices has been growing so far, but there is ultimately a limit to how many tourists Batumi, Kobuleti and Anaklia can absorb in July and August. After all, there are cheaper and better mass-tourism alternatives on the Turkish side of the border. Conversely, increasing offseason tourism would help attract additional investment in human and physical capital and raise the quality of services to a level appropriate for high-end tourism.
Along with the economic pitfalls outlined above, the danger associated with becoming just another “Disneyland” of mass tourism is in losing the very reason why people would want to come to Georgia, as well as losing a part of the national identity. The magnificence of Georgian landscapes is in the wild, untamed nature of their beauty. It is also one of the very few places in Europe where one can still witness and appreciate the tenacity and courage of people who do not merely survive, but “live with” the land, with the nature that is both generous and unforgiving.
Of course, we almost always accept as inevitable the sacrifice of “tradition” for “progress”. Most of the time, it is difficult to tell whether the changes we are going through are for the better or for the worse. In particular, it may depend on what people perceive to be the “core” of their identity. Our feeling is that Georgians as a people have been formed to a great extent by the freedom, the wilderness, and the power of their mountains. Any successful and smart approach to developing the tourism industry would take into consideration these important cultural aspects as well.