I FIRST came across Swagman Hotels and Travel in 1996. It was after a visit by a group of Filipina and Australian women's rights campaigners to a hotel in Angeles City. I don't know if you remember, but there was a bit of an altercation between the women and the manager of the Bonanza Hotel, Peter Bellamy, which ended with the women being ejected from the hotel. The next day, the study tour participants filed a formal complaint of harassment and grave coercion against the owner of the Bonanza Hotel with the police in Balibago. The women were in the Philippines on a Study Tour investigating Australian involvement in the sex tourism industry in the country and the phenomenal bride trade.
Just to jog your memory. Swagman is an Australian business that's been in the Philippines since 1980. It owns the island resort of Apuao Grande, just south of Manila, another resort to the north in La Union and three hotels in Baguio City, Manila and Angeles. It also runs a yacht, the Thor Viking, which is hired out for private holidays.
According to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, Swagman runs its operations through Swagman Travel in Australia, which is listed as an Australian Proprietary Limited Company. That means it's a private company and it doesn't have the same stringent reporting requirements of a public company. Which is okay, and above board, but means that tracking its business operations is not easy. Its directors in Australia are listed as Rodney Hegerty and Terrence Sayle. Sayle lives in Brisbane. Hegerty lives in the Philippines. It runs a travel agency in Coorparoo.
An investigation by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism in 1995 found that Swagman Travel is associated with Swagman Resorts in the Philippines, whose principal directors were Australians Rod Hegerty and Peter Bellamy and Filipina Leonor Infante.
I've always been interested in particular in Swagman's hotel in Angeles.
Angeles is really a town that grew up around the US Clark Airbase, at the foot of Mount Pinatubo. Along with Pattaya in Thailand, it is renowned as one of Asia's most notorious sex tourism destinations for Westerners. It is estimated that about 13,000 Australian men visit Angeles every year. That's about one in six Australians who visit the Philippines overall, making Australians second only to the Americans who go there for sex. The Australians are called the Kangaroo Sex Tourists. They go there because it's cheap to get a girl and it's not too expensive to stay and eat. You can get a girl for about $25 a day, which is cheaper than the going rate in Manila, where you'd pay about $50 a day.
Sabina Lauber from the Australian Law Reform Commission which is working to push the Australian Federal Government to act on the exploitation of women and children in the Philippines by Australian men says:
Still littered with ash and debris from the Mt Pinatubo eruption, the area offers little of the natural beauty found in other parts of the Philippines. However, Angeles has become a favourite tourist destination, and shuttle buses regularly take tourists directly from Manila airport to Angeles. For the men who wish to go on to beach resorts in southern Philippines, Angeles provides women for hire as a holiday mate. (Lauber, S. 'Confronting Sexual Exploitation: An Australian-Philippine Dialogue', "Reform", Winter 1995, Issue 67, Sydney, The Australian Law Reform Commission.)
There's believed to be about 2,000-2,500 prostituted women in Angeles. Of the estimated 500 in the notorious Fields area of the city, 75 per cent are believed to be children. According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women website, whether by choice or not, men on sex tours who buy underage girls help keep child prostitution alive in the Philippines. Women and children involved in prostitution are vulnerable to rape, murder, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Many of the hotels and bars in Angeles are run by Australians. Sabina Lauber from the Australian Law Reform Commission says: In Angeles city in particular, up to 80 per cent of the bars and hotels are owned or managed by Australians. (ibid.)
According to Max Ross, a retired U.S. serviceman and president of the Angeles City Tourism and Business Persons Association, Inc., the Australian business community in Angeles is a close-knit group, with 'a very good networking system'. His wife Luz Ross, who owns the Platinum Bar, likens the Australians to the Chinese in the way they have banded together, unlike Americans who, she says, are very individualistic. She says this is 'a cultural thing'.
Swagman has consistently denied that it is involved in sex tourism. It has always maintained that it does not promote or provide sex tours. However, a quick visit to its website shows that Swagman has no problems in using scantily-clad women to promote its services in the Philippines. Also, it runs a very famous wet t-shirt competition in Angeles. And its customers are predominantly men.
In 1992, in a special investigation by The Age newspaper on sex tourism in Angeles, Terry Sayle, one of the proprietors of Swagman Travel, was reported to have told a client: 'We don't arrange that sort of thing here, but if it is female company you want, we don't need to because it's on a plate when you get there. The best thing is to pick one up and take it with you'. Sayle was then reported as telling the tourist that he was single and did the same thing when he went there.
However, things are not looking altogether too bright for the sex industry in Angeles. According to a December 2001 report in The Australian Financial Review, Angeles is suffering from a downturn in sex tourism. The downturn is blamed on a number of factors, including the War on Terror and SARS, but also on vigorous campaigning by women's rights organisations to close down the bars and massage parlours.
Even Swagman is looking to get out and has reportedly been trying to sell its Angeles hotel for the past six years, but without success.