SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The slumping global economy is having a stimulus effect on Costa Rica’s famous sex-tourism industry, as a growing number of unemployed women — from Colombia to the Dominican Republic — flock to San José to seek a living in the world’s oldest profession.
In popular prostitution hot spots such as the Hotel & Casino Del Rey and Key Largo, local prostitutes compete with an influx of foreign women from Nicaragua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and even Russia. The increase in numbers and variety of working women here has reaffirmed Costa Rica’s position as an international hub for prostitution, which is legal and regulated by the government since 1894.
But not everyone is happy about the increased competition, which, along with a contracting economy, has required some prostitutes to lower their prices by as much as 40 to 50 percent.
“Business is bad. The problem is competition. Sometimes I don’t even make enough to take a taxi home after work,” said Costa Rican prostitute Mayela, as she lingers by the bar at Key Largo in search of a client.
Like many prostitutes, Mayela, a 36-year-old single mother with an unfinished education, first started selling her body for sex in her early 30s to support her children. After several years of prostitution, she made enough money to buy a small house and get her three daughters into decent schools. She eventually found an unskilled assembly line job at a factory, which paid less than prostitution but got her out of the skin trade, which she despises.
But when she got laid off earlier this year, Mayela said she had no choice but to return to wearing short skirts and working long nights.
“Now there are like 90 percent more girls working here than before,” Mayela said of the scene at Key Largo. “And most of them are foreigners.”
Even veteran foreign prostitutes notice the changes.
“There are a lot more Colombians now. Before it was mostly Ticas [Costa Ricans] and Nicas [Nicaraguans],” said Elena, a Russian prostitute who was brought to Costa Rica by a Belgian man five years ago to work in a strip club.
Some of San José’s women of the night came to Costa Rica with more ambitious professional plans in mind. Ana, 34, said she worked in the fashion industry in Colombia and came to Costa Rica to find similar work when the economy started to slow in her native country. When she couldn’t find a job in Costa Rica, she turned to prostitution.
Though tourism in Costa Rica has fallen 15 percent this year, the scene at the Del Rey and Key Largo — the heart of San José’s so-called “Gringo Gulch” — seems resilient to the downward trend. On a recent Saturday night, both spots were packed with hundreds of North American men, who flirted at the bar with curvy women or shuffled drunkenly and uninhibitedly on the dance floor to live music.
But while business in the Gringo Gulch appears lively at first glance, some women say more men seem interested in window shopping than making a purchase. A Costa Rican prostitute named “Cindy” says many men are looking for a fantasy bar experience where voluptuous women coo and paw at them for several hours, but fewer are actually paying to go upstairs afterward.
Jacobo Schifter, a professor emeritus at Costa Rica’s National University of Heredia and author of Mongers in Heaven, an investigation of Costa Rica’s sex tourism industry, reports that the self-identified sex-tourism mongers have created their own subculture, identity and even philosophical positions on issues such as sex and relationships.
For many, Schifter notes in his book, the behavior becomes addictive. Costa Rica, he says, becomes a monger’s “crack” and sex with prostitutes becomes their fix to help them “escape reality.”
While there are no official statistics, based on Schifter’s research, he estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 sex workers in the country, and 25,000 to 50,000 sex tourists who visit each year, 80 percent of whom are U.S. citizens.
Fundación Rahab, a Costa Rican nongovernmental organization that started in 1997 and has helped some 500 women leave the profession and find alternative work, acknowledges it’s harder to convince the current population of prostitutes to stay in their program with the economy in recession.
“It’s harder to convoke groups now, and it’s harder for the women to get out of prostitution because they say, “what I am going to live on if there’s no work?” said Laura Sisa, Fundación Rahab’s program coordinator.
As for Mayela, the Costa Rican woman who returned to prostitution after losing her factory job earlier this year, she said she is willing to make the personal sacrifice to protect her daughters from following in her footsteps.
“I sat my daughters down and told them what I do,” she said. “I told them they have to study, and that’s expensive. But I work hard so none of them will end up here. That would be the worst.”
By TIM ROGERS
Special to The Miami Herald