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Chinese tourists flock to Thailand for fun, sexual freedom

PHUKET: Bathed in a pink spotlight, the cabaret singer at Phuket’s ZAG bar lip-syncs the top notes of a popular Mandarin love song, delighting the crowd of gay Chinese tourists who have escaped judgement at home for sexual freedom in Thailand.

tourism, Chinese, sex, culture, economics,


Saturday 11 November 2017, 10:48AM

A Chinese tourist watching a cabaret performance at ZAG bar in Phuket: Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP
A Chinese tourist watching a cabaret performance at ZAG bar in Phuket: Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP

While the song, “The Moon Represents My Heart”, is a hit with the patrons, the transgender singer is just the warm up act.

“We’re waiting for the go-go boys!” says one Chinese reveller at ZAG, one of several clubs squeezed into Paradise Complex – the epicentre of the gay nightlife scene in Phuket.

With an estimated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) population of 70 million, China has the world’s third-largest LGBT market after Europe and the United States.

Yet in China being openly gay is still fraught with difficulties.

Dressing a certain way or public displays of affection can draw stares and lead to family turmoil. Some Chinese parents have even brought gay children to “conversion” clinics for treatment.

Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in China until 2001 and a crime until 1997, and authorities have arrested gay rights activists.

That makes Thailand, renowned for its more permissive attitude towards sexuality, an alluring holiday option for gay Chinese looking to cut loose away from family pressures and censorious eyes.

While LGBT Thais often still face discrimination in the workplace, Thailand’s gay party scene is famously loud and proud, known for late-night clubbing and cabaret shows in Bangkok and along its coastal resorts.

“Every night, around half our customers are from China. They used to come in the past, but this year suddenly there were a lot, so we added Chinese songs,” Bon Nadech, the owner of ZAG bar told AFP.

“Chinese tourists are great customers. They’re polite and curious about Thailand,” said a waiter at the nearby MO2 club.

Chinese travel companies are also crowding in to tap the market.

Nearly a dozen agents offer trips to Thailand for gay tourists, with ads showing travellers partying on yachts decorated with rainbow streamers and balloons.

The relaxed atmosphere offers a rush of liberation for those who make the trip.

“I have a lot of friends who don’t feel safe in China and feel they need to hide. In Thailand they don’t have to worry,” said Ji Chengfeng, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from Beijing, who was visiting Phuket on one of his frequent holidays in Thailand.

Tourist dollars

China sends more tourists to Thailand than any other country, with cheap air links and no visa requirements funnelling visitors to the kingdom.

Thailand has already welcomed 6.6mn Chinese tourists in 2017 – up from a total of 2.7mn five years ago – bringing a flood of cash into the key sector.

In comparison, less than 700,000 Americans and a little over 500,000 French citizens visited Thailand so far this year.

The economic potential of LGBT travellers in particular is increasingly catching the eyes of tourist operators worldwide.

Many are not parents and therefore have a greater disposable income, plus are better able to travel outside peak holiday periods.

In recent years, on the heels of gay marriage court rulings, tourist boards in the more permissive corners of the world are promoting their countries as same-sex wedding and honeymoon destinations.

In 2013, the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s office in New York launched its campaign “Go Thai Be Free” to actively welcome LGBT travellers.

While same-sex marriage is not officially recognised under Thai law, it is a widely accepted practice.

But it remains strictly illegal in China, where a court last year ruled against two men seeking to marry.

Several Thai entertainers, tour guides and service staff, told AFP they were studying Mandarin to improve communication with Chinese visitors.

“We get more business if we offer tours in Mandarin,” said Lalani of Phuket Sunshine Tours, who gave only her first name because she was not authorized to speak with media.

As the night wears on at ZAG, the atmosphere becomes increasingly freewheeling, with LGBT and straight partygoers downing shots together and posing for photos with the bare-chested go-go boys.

“I want to find some way to live here. It’s so fun and open. Men can hold hands on the street and no one will care,” one young web developer from Shanghai told AFP, declining to give his name to protect his identity.

“In China if you do that people will make a big deal out of it. They will take photos of you,” he said, before leaping onto stage for a dance.



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Jor12 | 13 November 2017 - 18:31:46

Some commentators need to consider history. Even feminists rights have been championed since the start of 1900's and continuing. 

So what if there is contradiction in gay marriage "not being accepted but is a widely accepted practice." It's the same in other countries where gay marriage is illegal but is widely accepted - Australia is a good example, where even a retired High ...

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Kurt | 12 November 2017 - 13:09:59

What is sexual freedom?
Not free to live in a by you wanted relationship in one's own country?
Than work it out in your own country, as it has been done in many other countries.

Phuket patong Paradise complex has nothing to do with freedom in sexual relationships.
It is just a gay prostitution compound, again, also paying Patong RTP monthly large sums of money to violate thai laws.

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