Ukraine's other crisis: Weak currency, cheap flights spur 'sex tourism'
In a country hit hard by economic downturn, the industry is expected to double to $1.5 billion this year.
When Tonya came to Kyiv (Kiev) from her small hometown in western Ukraine to study, it was a route out of the dreary provincial life she had grown to hate. She struggled to make ends meet. Her parents, with a combined monthly income of around $200, were hardly in a position to help fund her studies.Skip to next paragraph
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Tonya feared she would have to give up and return home. But then she found a way to stay: selling her body to foreign men.
"My choice was to work as a prostitute or go home," she says, glancing around nervously. "I would never have done it but for the circumstances. I don't want to work as a prostitute, but I need to get an education so I can get a decent job."
Tonya is one of thousands of women who are part of an industry that has boomed in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991: sex tourism.
The problem is already so acute that Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine's interior minister, declared on national television earlier this year that "The country is becoming a paradise for sex tourism before our eyes."
And with the economic crisis hitting Ukraine harder than most countries in Europe – unemployment has soared by more than 50 percent in the past year – rights groups are concerned that desperation is causing more women to make decisions like Tonya's.
"The problem was bad before the crisis, but now it's booming," says Anna Hutsol, head of the nongovernmental women's rights group FEMEN.
Ms. Hutsol says that foreign men are taking advantage of the fall of the national currency, the hryvna, which has lost around 40 percent of its value against the dollar and the euro since the start of the crisis. They are also attracted by the visa-free regime for US and EU citizens introduced in 2005, and the advent of cheap flights from EU countries.
Police predict doubling of sex industry to $1.5 billion
The number of visitors to Ukraine has surged in recent years – last year alone saw an increase of 2 million – and although there is no way of tracking them, both the authorities and rights groups note that the number of sex tourists is mushrooming.
A police estimate in February forecast that the sex industry is set to more than double in value, going from $700 million in 2008 to $1.5 billion this year.
Some hotels are, as Hutsol puts it, "basically brothels" – last year saw two concierges arrested at two of the city's elite hotels for allegedly helping guests find prostitutes. Dozens of websites play on Ukrainian women's reputed beauty, advertising girls with price lists for the "services" they offer as well as testimonies from clients. They also offer tips to get girls past hotel security late at night.