The regalo system and Puerto’s emerging sex industry

City tourism head Aileen Cynthia Amurao this week expressed concern over the proliferation of prostitution around the city, as they prepare to hold a major month-long event expected to draw in more people at this time when the travel season begins to pick up.

During a forum held recently by the Philippine Information Agency, Ms. Amurao took note of reports she said they have been receiving, that the demand for sex workers is coming mainly from visitors, including traveling government officials who are being given “regalo” by their hosts.

She also observed the seeming tolerance by tourist police of the women’s activities as they congregate in certain areas around the city, notably around the Capitol complex, while plying their trade. She admitted to the difficulty of curtailing these activities, noting that the girls transact their businesses mainly using text messaging.

The reality of prostitution is clear as day, as any observant person will notice. It is common knowledge in the tourism sector, among tricycle drivers and van rentals. Ms. Amurao’s statement merely underscores the government’s seemingly tolerant attitude towards it.

The admission that visiting local officials are given “regalos” by their hosts in the form of sexual services typifies our laissez faire policy on prostitution. Law enforcement is aware of it but they do little or nothing at all. Civil authorities recognize prostitution as a social concern, yet some or many of them even take advantage of it to entertain their own visitors.

News reports have indicated that the City of Puerto Princesa has one of the highest numbers of known HIV cases among secondary cities in the country. No studies are available that provide conclusions and observations about how this situation came about and if it is linked to the growth of the tourism sector per se. It is, however, a recognized fact that urbanization or tourism growth is often accompanied by a proportional growth of the sex industry.

Prostitution is, for all intents and purposes, a demand-supply issue. The social milieu dictates its own terms and there is little one can do to influence it superficially.

Some countries have approached the reality of prostitution with a pragmatic policy of tolerance and regulation, its rationale and intent defined around the objectives of containing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, protecting women and children’s rights or dissociating the prostitution business from criminal syndicates.

The premise of regulation is that prostitution can never by completely wiped out in certain social settings and may only be controlled or regulated. Here the cliche applies, prostitution is as old as the Bible.

While we do have existing ordinances e.g. requiring female workers in entertainment bars to secure a city health license, a policy that is commendable, this reality of rising prostitution in the city is a problem that has fallen between two chairs – no central authority is responsible and no comprehensive policy addressing prostitution is in place.

Ms. Amurao’s admission and revelations should encourage the city government to carefully define its strategic direction towards addressing the challenge of prostitution rise in Puerto Princesa City. It is never too late to review the efficacy of existing regulations, to define our strategic goals and see if there are additional legislation that need to be in place.

It will be a specific challenge how the regalo system that Ms. Amurao has disclosed can be stopped – maybe a simple memorandum from the city mayor and the provincial governor will minimize the practice, at least, if not push it underground. This is a matter that we hope the City Council may be able to utilize its productive minds.


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