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Leaders of the battle against child-sex tours have recently called on major Japanese travel groups to join a growing international campaign against the widespread practice.

The call comes prior to the second World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, to be hosted by the Japanese government in Yokohama in December.

The first World Congress, patronized by Sweden’s Queen Silvia in 1996, included delegates from over 120 countries and brought worldwide attention to the issues of child pornography, trafficking and prostitution.

Helena Karlen, from the executive committee of ECPAT International, said, “It is crucial that the Japanese travel industry, the largest in the world, joins in the international effort.”

ECPAT, established in 1990 as a campaign to end child prostitution in Asian tourism, is a nongovernmental organization originally set up in Thailand by private citizens alarmed by the growth of the child sex trade in Southeast Asia. It is now active in over 50 countries, including the United States, Britain, China and Japan.

Attendees at a meeting hosted by the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo late last week included high-ranking representatives of the Japanese travel industry.

“I was very shocked to hear how apparently normal tourists can seriously abuse these children,” said Akira Yasuda, JTB Corp.’s director of research and development for overseas travel.

“Twenty years ago (the industry) took action (because) groups of Japanese men (were) going abroad to buy prostitutes and so on,” Yasuda said. “Now I strongly believe it is necessary to make a commitment to this serious issue and protect these poor street children.”

According to U.N. estimates, at least 1 million boys and girls, some as young as 8 years old, every year are forced or coerced into the sex trade, which usually increases with the arrival of wealthy overseas tourists, compounding existing problems such as poverty and disease.

HIV-infection rates among child prostitutes in Thailand, for example, are estimated to be as high as 75 percent.

Occasional offenders, rather than confirmed pedophiles, commit most of the offenses in tourist destinations. While many have escaped open censure and prosecution in the past, the long arm of the law is now reaching across national boundaries.

New extraterritorial laws mean tourists can be tried in their home countries for child sex crimes committed overseas. Last year, a U.S. court sentenced a university professor to 105 years in prison for sex crimes committed against Honduran boys.

In Japan, public and institutional awareness has dramatically improved in recent years. “Although much still needs to be done, it has gone from almost zero to a remarkably open and positive approach,” said Kaj Reinius, press counselor of the Swedish Embassy.

The most important turnaround in Japan was the enactment of legislation in 1999 that cracks down on individuals buying sex from minors, for example through telephone dating clubs, and makes production, possession and distribution of child pornography illegal.

At last week’s meeting in Tokyo, National Police Agency officials reported 819 arrests in the 13 months following enactment of the law in November 1999. These include over 1,000 cases of child prostitution and 123 cases of child pornography on the Internet. Before 1999, Interpol estimated that as much as 80 percent of child pornography was either produced in or routed through Japan.

No recent figures are available, but a spokesman for the Japan Committee for UNICEF said the law appears to be having a significant impact on deterring prospective offenders.

On an international level, the new law also allows Japanese police to pursue individual offenders and organized pedophile rings. Such international cooperation is vital to combat “borderless crimes” organized via the Internet and the recent rise of trafficking in women and children from one country to another.

Research shows a direct relation between the rise of tourism in developing countries and the growth of offenses against children. Since tourism is expected to continue growing, the opportunities for exploitation are vast.

However, new evidence shows that the campaign is producing results. In Sri Lanka, Karlen said, “the government went from total denial and fear of damaging tourist revenues to passing model laws. Now, there is a child abuse desk in every police station, and a school for abused children has just opened, funded with money from tour excursions.”

In Thailand, hotel operators recently reported a fall in single male tourists and a rise in family bookings, which they partly attribute to a new code of conduct. This code spells out opposition to child sex tourism and is posted in travel brochures and in-flight information. The code has been adopted by 98 percent of Scandinavian tour operators, and upholding it is now a condition of contracts with hotels.

Lotta Sand, head of Sustainable Tourism Issues at the Stockholm-based Fritidsresor Group of travel companies, said, “As tour operators, our biggest responsibility is to raise awareness among overseas staff, suppliers and travelers.”

Despite the difficulties, she said, responsible tourism is beginning to make a difference. “The message is clear: making a stand against child sex offenders not only helps the children but also protects a developing country’s tourist income, and the industry as a whole.”

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