Senegal draws tourists with sun, sea and sex

Updated on
Middle-aged European women go to Senegal's beaches to find romance with young men like these two who are playing beach football in the capital Dakar, May 24, 2005.
Finbar O'Reilly

Female sex tourism: for love or money? In a series of stories, GlobalPost looks at the women of means who find "romance" on vacation from Jamaica to Jordan to West Africa. 

DAKAR, Senegal — Women — often white, European and "of a certain age" — flock solo to Senegal's shores year-round for what one hotel manager called "the three 'S's: sun, sea and sex."

The growth of Senegal's female sex tourism has its roots in poverty and the lack of jobs for the country's young men. Senegal's unemployment for youths is estimated at 30 percent, according to the International Labor Organization, and the average person in Senegal earns about $3 a day, according to the World Bank.

“It’s a question of survival. Life is hard. If I didn’t have these women, I’d be struggling," said Moussa, a 31-year-old dreadlocked drum player who has been "dating" female tourists since 2003.

“The women come here alone. They hit on you, and you go with it,” Moussa said. “They like men with rastas who play the djembes [drums]. It’s part of the ambiance.”

"Besides," he added with a sly smile, "they know men who play the drums are powerful in bed."

Moussa flipped through a stack of photos. In one image, an overweight, Spanish woman — his first "girlfriend" — has her arms around his small frame. She gave him $500, he said, before heading home. Another photo is a self-taken shot of him with an Italian woman who he said gave him the $650 to open his souvenir shop in Dakar where we now sit, drinking spicy Touba coffee.

He pointed out the gifts tourists send him: CDs, USB drives, a guitar, an MP3 player and a DVD player.

“I don’t ask for money," he said. "We go out. They pay for everything. We have sex. Before they leave, they give me a bit cash to help me out."

Some call it male prostitution, while others say it's just women doing what middle-aged men have been doing for centuries: Taking up with someone half their age and giving that new friend an all-expenses-paid ride in exchange for sex and a new lease on life.

Moussa meets tourists primarily through referrals and friends of friends. He sees himself as “a tourism guide who offers some extra services,” that include sex and at times helping male tourists negotiate evenings with female prostitutes.

But, others in Senegal say it is not that innocent. It's exploitation on both sides, they say, and sex tourism has sullied the country's reputation and corrupted its youth.

But, closing up his shop back in Dakar to head off to drum practice, Moussa said he's not worried about what other people think.

"I haven't met her yet," he said, "The woman who's not so old, who loves me, who's willing to do anything. The woman who will get me a visa and a plane ticket out of here."

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.

Female sex tourism is often referred to as “love tourism,” and becomes a lifestyle for some women who make frequent trips to see a regular boyfriend or simply play the field.

Some see it as companionship with the promise of a pay-off at the end, but Ba and other Saly residents said it’s just plain old sex for money.

“You have no job, no nothing, and you see your friend living in a house and driving a car that his European girlfriend bought him,” Ba said, “She comes every month or so to visit and sends him money. You say to yourself, well, I could do that too."

Pape does not live in luxury.

The 30-year-old has a job in Dakar that pays him $250 a month. Half his paycheck goes to rent and he stretches the other half to cover his living expenses and to send funds to his elderly mother in Ivory Coast. Pape's friends and family don’t know about his 52-year-old Dutch girlfriend. They also don’t know about the gifts and $250 cash infusions she sends him, sometimes three times a month. 

"I'm a thing, her object, her toy, her property," he said. "If I had the choice financially, I wouldn't date her. I would never have started this."

Chain-smoking and downing two beers, Pape, started from the beginning.

He met the Dutch woman while working in Senegal’s southern Casamance region last January. She was there on vacation. They were staying in the same hotel.

"When I came back and went to sleep, she would knock on the door,” he said. “One night, she invited me into her room. I refused. It was weird. It was my friends who explained to me that she was interested."

When he returned to Dakar, she cried. Though hesitant, Pape agreed to meet her the next weekend in Zigunchor, a coastal city in Casamance.

"We went out that night. When we got back to the hotel, what was going to happen happened,” he said with a shrug. "She's well-preserved, considering her age.”

"I've never asked her, but I think she was there for sex," he said. "I'm afraid to ask.”

Since then, they Skype and talk on the phone. During her most recent visit last month, they traveled along the coast, passing through Saly.

"I saw quite a few young men there with old, white women. I began to question my morality. What are you doing with this old woman? She could be your mom. You've become a gigolo, someone who doesn't have ambition, someone who is ready to do anything for money,” he said.

When she left, Pape said he felt only relief.

"I'm not attracted to her,” he said. “I tried to avoid sex but she insisted. She complained. She says she loves me. She has helped me a lot, so now I feel like I have to give her something."

"We fight. I tell her I can't continue like this. She offers me money. She knows she can keep me,” he said.

The woman says she has found him an internship in Holland and offered to buy him a plane ticket. It's just grim reality, he says, that all the shame and guilt in the world won’t stop him from going if his visa is approved.

Years ago at a club in the Gambia, Pape saw a young man gyrating sexily in front of three old white women. One of the women reached out and patted his butt before shaking her head no, like it was a piece of fruit in the market.

"That memory comes back to me often lately," he said, stamping out one cigarette and lighting up another. "Once I find a good job, I will get my dignity back. But for now, I'm a prostitute."

Read more on female sex tourism:

Introduction: for love or money?

The Jordanian desert's other delight — sex tourism

Q&A: Romance on the road and what women want