City fathers decree that sleaze ain't what it used to be

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The Independent Online
The Alcazar in Pattaya, Thailand's largest and most notorious coastal resort, is packed most nights. Showgirls mime their way enthusiastically through medleys of Thai, Chinese and English songs.

The format and atmosphere is something like the London Palladium of the Sixties, except that all the girls are boys. The show falls firmly into the category of naughty but nice, and in many ways the Alcazar represents what the Pattaya city fathers and their colleagues in the tourist industry are trying to achieve - preserving a slight edge of the risqu while making the city an acceptable holiday destination for all.

Since the Vietnam war, when Pattaya became a big rest and recreation centre for American troops, the former fishing village has become synonymous with sex, drugs and ,well, all sorts of sleaze. The official tourist guides speak coyly of the "magic and enchantment of a vibrant nightlife".

This vibrant nightlife includes 550 open-air bars where the ancient art of getting legless is practised. Go-go bars, where young ladies do things with ping pong balls, seem to be everywhere in the southern part of the town and there is an area for homosexuals, known as "Boys' Town".

The city is brash and proud of it. It is the sort of place where people almost seem compelled to wear funny hats and sport T-shirts with suggestive slogans. It will never attract the arts and culture crowd, nor are they sought, but Pattaya hoteliers are resentful of the image. "A lot of stuff about Pattaya has been inflated in the past," said an angry Alois Fassbind, the executive vice-president of the up-market Royal Cliff Beach Resort. He says that the image was conjured up by journalists, sent to cover events in Vietnam and Cambodia, who found themselves without of a story and fell back on tales of sex from the resort.

He says that 95 per cent of visitors are husbands and wives, and that Pattaya is being given a unfair press. Yet there is no denying the prevalence of the sex industry nor the general atmosphere of hustling which pervades the town.

Business has been declining in the resort city which has 30,000 hotel rooms. Businessmen realise that Pattaya without the "magic and enchantment of a vibrant nightlife" would lose much of its allure but they want to make the city more acceptable as a place for family holidays, conventions and sporting events.

The key to this transformation, says Songsak Yomjinda, the deputy city manager of Pattaya, is zoning. Moves are afoot to concentrate all the sleaze in one area. Also, the city authorities have recognised that Pattaya has become over-developed.

Much of the town is an ugly sprawl of high-rises interspersed with scraggy shopping centres. Zoning should help to make the city more presentable, although Pattaya has die-hard fans who like the cowboy atmosphere and fear that any clear-up will diminish its character.

Few, however, will mourn the moves to clean up both the sea and beaches. A ban has been imposed on the disposal of sewage straight into the sea. Millions of pounds have been spent on the introduction of new water treatment and sewage disposal plants. The effect has been staggering, making the resort far more acceptable than many Mediterranean destinations.

As Pattaya is steadily surrounded by golf courses, the sea fills up with all manner of water sports, and hotels become even grander, visitors are being lured back, but it is an uphill task.

In many ways Pattaya's businessmen want to have their cake and eat it. "There are sex tours everywhere in the world," says Anusak Rodboonmee, the general manager of the Asia Pattaya Beach Hotel, suggesting that it is perfectly fair that his town should get a share of the action.

He knows full well that the sex industry is part of the attraction. Without it, Pattaya would be just another overcrowded resort; with it, there is a fair amount of bad publicity but there was even more in the late Eighties when the hotels were full.

Either the times have changed and the world's oldest profession is in less demand, or Pattaya may need to change even more.