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Senegal draws tourists with sun, sea and sex

Female sex tourism in Senegal attracts women who will pay for romance.

The resort town of Saly, on the Atlantic coast, 55 miles south of Dakar, bears the dubious distinction as the epicenter of sex tourism in Senegal.

Middle-aged and elderly female tourists are a quick payday for young men — often called gigolos or antiquaires, originally souvenir vendors — who work out shirtless on the beaches and preen in the nightclubs. It's a hustle, locals said, and the older the woman, the better.

Last spring, the French news program, "66 Minutes," investigated female sex tourism in Saly and the growing number of marriages between European women and local men, often with vast age differences.

Going undercover, female reporters recorded via hidden camera the young men propositioning them on the beach. They later translated discussions the men had with each other in Wolof, Senegal's main ethnic language.

"You found yourself some clients ... When I got here, I saw immediately that you had spotted these two white ladies," said one guy walking past a friend who is chatting up the reporters.

"Get a move on. Leave me alone. Let me work," he snapped back.

Needless to say, Saly's residents were not pleased with the story's release and have become rather wary of the media.

It was a Saturday around 1 a.m. — Valentine's Day, no less — when I first ventured into Les Etages, a nightclub that opened two years ago and has become a veritable hunting ground for tourists — male and female — on the prowl.

Inside, female prostitutes, some wearing more makeup than clothes, ringed the club's perimeter. The club's strobe lights skittered across a stout, middle-aged woman's smiling face, pressed against a young Senegalese man's chest.

Similar couples moved on the packed dance floor.

A petite woman, her dry chin-length bob bleached almost the same color as her tan tube top, inched out on the dance floor with a stiff side-step.

A tall, dapper Senegalese man in a blue dress shirt and pressed jeans approached and they began to dance, palms pressed together between them. The DJ switched to salsa, and the man pulled her in. Over the course of two songs, his hands drifted from her shoulder blades to the small of her back.

They were swaying in unison, pelvises pressed together. The only thing separating them now was about 25 years.

Locals aren’t sure if sex tourism has actually increased in Saly or if it has simply become more visible in recent years.

Senegalese tourism has grown from modest numbers in the 1970s when the first Club Med opened on the coast. More than 500,000 tourists came to Senegal last year, according to government statistics. It is a key economic activity for the country of 12 million with a GDP of $13 billion.

Emphasizing the importance of tourism in Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade set a goal of attracting 1.5 million tourists in 2010. However, those working in the tourism industry say that figure is still far-off and blame the world economic crisis and rising airfare costs for a recent downturn in visitors.

But the female tourists looking for romance are still coming. There are no figures about how many indulge in sex tourism, but there are enough to support nightclubs like Les Etages.

Hotel manager Cheikh Ba said arriving guests ask him where Les Etages is before asking about the beach or even getting their room keys.

“That gives you an idea of why they’re here,” Ba said. “Some people say the sex brings Europeans to Saly. They don’t want to say anything bad about it, but I say it is ruining this town.”

Peak season in Saly is between November and April. Hotel managers complain of the downturn in business. They say some tourists now prefer to rent vacation homes where they can go about their business in private.