A leading tourism official said on Wednesday that child prostitution was a major contributor to increasing HIV/AIDS cases in the country’s tourism hot spots, while another official from Bali claimed that legalizing prostitution on the island would curb the spread of the virus.
Bakri, the director of society empowerment at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, warned of the impact that the spread of HIV/AIDS could have on Indonesia’s tourism sector after a surge of infections was reported in Bali.
“We have to pay extra attention to our tourism destinations because there are some [criminal] syndicates that seek out underage prostitutes,” he said. “This results in physical and mental harm as well as an increase in HIV/AIDS [cases].”
Sanglah General Hospital in Denpasar, Bali, has reported that 153 new cases of HIV were detected within the past five months and at least 31 people have died of HIV/AIDS-related causes over that same period.
Bakri said the surge in new cases was alarming, given the resort island’s position as Indonesia’s premier vacation spot. However, he attempted to glaze over a direct connection between tourism development and the spread of the disease.
“Tourism is often blamed for contributing to the high rate of HIV/AIDS, but it’s not true. Tourism is a good thing. It is people who have misused tourism areas and facilities,” he said.
But Bali Tourism Board chairman Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya was not convinced that tourism played only a marginal role in spreading the virus, and called for a pragmatic approach to containment in one of the world’s foremost holiday destinations.
“Tourism can’t be directly linked to HIV/AIDS transmissions, but we have to admit that it does affect the spread of the disease,” he said adding that the Bali administration should consider establishing a controlled prostitution zone on the island.
Kemal Siregar, the deputy for program development at the National AIDS Commission, echoed those calls by pointing to the enhanced ability of health care workers to monitor high-risk groups in red-light districts.
“If the government acts repressively, prostitution will grow uncontrollably and even spread to households,” he said. “With a red-light district, it will be easier to identify high-risk groups and conduct an integrated prevention program.”
Bakri, however, disagreed, saying that legalizing prostitution would permanently taint the island’s image and drive visitor numbers down.
“Experience has taught us that people refuse to go to red-light districts,” he said. “Women are afraid their husbands or sons would visit these places. It would also cause great losses for the hotels and restaurants operating in those areas.”
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Health in December last year, Bali has the fifth highest number of HIV/AIDS cases among Indonesia’s provinces, with 1,615 people officially diagnosed with the virus.
West Java has the most at 3,598 cases, followed by East Java with 3,227 cases. Jakarta and Papua rank third and fourth with 2,828 and 2,808 cases respectively.
The ministry reported that by March 2010 there were more than 40,000 people living with HIV in Indonesia, more than 20,000 of whom have been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
However, health workers believe that number is just the tip of the iceberg. UNAIDS estimates that at least 270,000 Indonesians have contracted HIV.