Sex-tourism in Azerbaijan: an Arabian summer
“What does it matter if I don’t know the language? I can explain with gestures,” says Parvana.
Naturally, this is not the girl’s real name. She is sitting on a bench in front of the fountain on Parapet [ed – officially, Fountain Square]. It is already evening. Soon there will be many people here, and what’s more, most of them will be tourists and not locals.
Parvana works mostly with Arabs. Sometimes, she says, she has Iranians too, in addition to Azerbaijanis. But, she says, Arabs pay more.
“Everyone understands the word ‘money’. I open the calculator application on my phone and enter some numbers. If they shake their head ‘no’, I delete the numbers and put in others. If we go with a ‘friend’, then the price is doubled,” says Parvana.
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Prices, she says, are 100 manat (USD 59) an hour, or 150 (USD 88) if she’s lucky. The average salary in the country is 300 dollars a month. And so, working only five days a week and meeting with one client a day, Parvana can earn 1260 dollars a month, a sum which is unbelievable for a job which does not require an education or special skills. In comparison, a janitor might make 12 dollars a day in a best case scenario.
The flowering of tourism
The visa regime was simplified for countries of the Persian Gulf and several other Arab countries in 2016. According to official data, this results in 500 tourists arriving daily from these countries, says economist Toghrul Mashalli.
“The first and second places are taken by Iran and the United Arab Emirates. When a direct flight opened from Kuwait, passenger traffic increased eight-fold.”
What attracts tourists from these countries to Azerbaijan?
Experts have named several reasons for the mass arrival of Arabs in Azerbaijan. For example, Azerbaijan as an alternative to Turkey.
Azerbaijani Tourism Association (AzTA) head Nahid Bagirov said in an interview with AzVision.az that the inflow of Arab tourists into Azerbaijan began in April.
“Azerbaijan is a comfortable destination for tourists from Iran and Arab countries. After the terror attacks and bloody events in Turkey, tourists who refused to go there started coming to Azerbaijan. Today, the majority of the hotels are filled with Arabs, and in September this situation will be at its peak. Arabs, for the most part, stay in 4 and 5-star hotels. And tourists from Iran prefer 3-star hotels.”
Other reasons include the devaluation of the manat (thanks to which it’s not so expensive to travel in the country in terms of the dollar equivalent), the relatively European appearance of the city and the accessibility to forms of entertainment which may not be available in Islamic countries, for example, alcohol.
Tourism expert Nuray Kerimova said in a comment to JAMnews that ‘for Arabs of all categories that arrive in Azerbaijan, it is preferable for them to spend their money in cheap Baku restaurants and bars than in expensive European cities. Another important reason is that Baku is a very safe city’.
“They have expensive boutiques, entertainment centers and malls in their countries as well: Arabs don’t come to Baku for shopping. And it’s no secret to anyone that the reason for which they go to other countries is forbidden in their homelands. They cannot move around freely at home nor have fun – there are few ways of entertaining oneself. And for that reason they are attracted to Azerbaijan. And especially the bars. In the bars they can freely drink and get to know girls,” says Parvana.
On the portion of Nizami street known in Baku as ‘Torgovaya’ [ed – “Trade street”], there are few options for entertainment. In Azerbaijan, casinos were banned towards the end of the 1990s; sex-services are illegal and for that reason, unlike many other cities, there is no ‘red-light district’ in Baku.
On ‘Torgovaya’, there are mostly cafes and boutiques. Tourists, including Arab tourists, walk about here with their families both during the day and night. For many of them, family-walks are replaced by ‘hunts’ either by themselves or in the company of other men. Parvana says that they are the real hunters, not the Arab tourists.
“We know that they gather at Parapet, and so we go there too. We look around, assess, and try to choose more handsome and richer-looking clients. I never go with someone I don’t like,” says Parvana.
She adds that before that she used to work in a bar. And now she works alone, and sometimes with her friend.
“It didn’t make sense to work in the bar. I had too many expenses. It is more reasonable to rent an apartment, because its risky to go to hotels. The Arab tourists otherwise might not pay.”
Sex workers feel more comfortable at apartments. Once, Parvana and her friend beat up a tourist who refused to pay them. In a hotel, he could have called the police.
The daily rent for an apartment is about 60-70 manat or USD 35-40.
According to a realtor that wished to remain anonymous, renting a two-room apartment for one day next to the Nizami movie theatre on Bulbul prospect can cost 100 manat (USD 59).
“The owner of the apartment knows to whom they are renting this apartment and for what purposes it is being rented. Here is another important thing: Arabs are very careful. They won’t go far from the center, let’s say, to Neftchiler or January 20 [ed – peripheral districts of Baku]. And for that reason they agree to meet with women offering sex-services only in the center of the city.”
More well-off and prudent tourists get ready before-hand. Through various sites, they get in touch with sex-workers that live in Baku and who have stated their willingness to meet with Arab men. One such site offers a half hour of intimate services for 100 dollars, an hour for 200 dollars, 4 hours for 600 dollars and 24 hours for 1000 dollars. Payment is made in cash. Expenses for taxi services is not included.
“This is an embarrassment”
The influx of Arab tourists into Azerbaijan and, in particular, with the aim of obtaining sex-services, has given rise to an ambiguous reaction amongst local residents. In the Azerbaijani segment of social media, this question has turned into a subject of loud discussion. Some users of social media who have witnessed how sex-workers deal with tourists, have taken pictures of these seasons and publish the photos online.
“Every evening in the center of the city Azerbaijani ‘girls’ approach Arabs and shamelessly offer themselves. Every evening I have witnessed such scenes. On the main central street, not knowing one another’s language, they deal in gestures. This is an embarrassment,” writes social media user Emin Amiraslanov.
Baku residents accuse the police of allowing sex-workers to work openly in front of everybody’s eyes.
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“Supposedly, prostitution is forbidden in this country by law. Moreover, you can’t go into the center of town anymore with your family and children – wherever you go, you see Arab tourists dealing with sex-prostitutes. And this happens right in front of the police. Can it be that they don’t see these pairs walking arm-in-arm, this outrage right in the center of the city? Obviously, they have already received their cut since they’re closing their eyes to this,” writes another social media user.
As JAMnews was told by Galib Arif, the head of the press service of Baku City Police Headquarters, the police is constantly battling against this phenomenon.
“Our policemen don’t wait for someone to disturb public order. They are constantly aware and on their toes. They are waging a constant battle with the negative elements that you noted. There is a constant battle being waged against this. But here, there is one thing to note: without any proof, we can’t just take someone by the hand and say ‘don’t walk about Torgovaya’ or ‘don’t stand about’. We can’t forbid people from talking to tourists. In such cases, the police can only act when presented with direct facts.”
It’s worth noting that prostitution in Azerbaijan is punishable by fine. In the first point of Article 244 (maintaining a brothel) of the Criminal Codex, it is noted that those arrested for the organization and maintenance of brothels can be arrested for 400 hours and / or fined around 2500 – 3500 manat (USD 1 470 – 2 060).
“If I can earn so much over the course of two seasons as I did this summer, I will leave the country. I will open a small store or cafe for myself in a quiet city where nobody knows me. Thanks to the Arab tourists, I can put an end to such a life,” says Parvana.