By Luchina Fisher
Monday, September 22, 2003
Accused of promoting overseas "sex tours" for U.S. men, a New York-based travel agency is currently closed for business. With a lawsuit pending, Big Apple Oriental Tours says it does not work with prostitutes and has done nothing wrong.
(WOMENSENEWS)--A travel agency based in Queens, N.Y., accused of offering "sex tours" of bars in Southeast Asia to U.S. men, has been temporarily halted from doing business as usual. A motion to lift the restraining order will be decided early next month.
In a suit filed against the owners of the company, Big Apple Oriental Tours, the New York State attorney general alleges that the company's tour guides took clients to nightclubsin the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia and negotiated fees and sexual acts with prostitutes through their bar managers, known as "mama-sans."
"The company purports to be a traditional travel agency," Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said in a statement, "but through its actions promotes prostitution and the abuse of young women. This suit seeks a halt to this egregious conduct."
The business is operated out of the homes of its owners, Norman Barabash, 58, of Bellerose, Queens, and Douglas Allen, 58 of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Allen denies that they are operating a sex-tourism agency and instead says it is a matchmaking service for single American men to meet women overseas.
"The basic purpose was to help single men to find wives," he tells Women's eNews. "We got into this as single men looking for wives." He dismisses his critics as "feminazis."
In the 10 years they have been in business, Allen says the tours have spawned about 40 successful marriages, including that of co-owner Barabash, who married a Filipino woman eight years ago.
"We are typical men," Allen says. "We like to drink beer, shoot pool and chase women. We found a place where the women treat men like John Wayne and spoil you rotten."
He adds the company's usual tour customer is a "guy" in his 40s who has never married and finds it difficult to enter the U.S. dating scene. He says most of his clients enjoy the Philippine nightlife for a while, then many of them will eventually "meet a nice lady and literally go off on a honeymoon."
The suit was filed on July 29, the same day Spitzer obtained a temporary restraining order from State Supreme Court Justice Christine A. Sproat prohibiting the company from advertising or promoting its tours in magazines and other publications.
Daniel A. Hochheiser, the attorney for Barabash, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this month. That motion will be decided at the next court date on Oct. 2. Hochheiser says his client has "committed no acts of civil wrongdoing. This suit is really supported by hearsay, innuendo and a lot of heat and no fire."
"The temporary restraining order is just the first step," says Antonia Kirkland, program coordinator for Equality Now, the New York-based human rights organization that first contacted the attorney general's office about Big Apple Oriental Tours. "We hope this will really send a message that sex tourism is illegal and that it highlights the violations of women's rights that are being perpetrated by American sex tourists."
Equality Now, which works to protect the rights of women and girls, launched a campaign in 1996 to bring about prosecution of all U.S.-based sex tourism agencies. According to the group, no U.S. sex tour operator has ever been convicted under either state or federal law. A 1996 Business Week article found more than 25 companies, in cities such as Miami, New York and San Diego, operating at the time.
Equality Now's first target was Big Apple Oriental Tours. In 1996, one of the group's consultants, posing as a potential customer, spoke to company representatives and collected promotional videos and brochures.
The consultant gained information indicating that Big Apple Oriental Tours would make arrangements like a regular travel agent for a trip to the Philippines, says Kirkland. "Then there would be a guide that would take you to the bars and negotiate a price for a prostitute to take home that evening," she says.
Equality Now turned over its evidence to the Queens district attorney's office, which three years later dropped it for insufficient evidence.
In response, author Gloria Steinem and Carolyn Maloney, Democratic U.S. Representative for Manhattan and Queens, held a press conference with members of Equality Now in January 2000. "This is clearly promotion of prostitution," Steinem said. Maloney called the lack of prosecution, "an embarrassment to New York and federal law."
Last year, Equality Now contacted the New York attorney general's office, which sent its own investigator to pose as a prospective client. After six months, the attorney general filed a civil suit, seeking to close down Big Apple Oriental Tours and impose financial penalties and legal costs.
Hochheiser, the attorney for agency owner Barabash, questions why the attorney general did not file criminal charges after wire-tapping his client, searching his home and collecting numerous documents.
"It's because they do not have the evidence," he says. "This is an old story that has been looked at and examined and nothing was there before. The attorney general is trying to appease this special interest group and is basically bothering my client with a civil suit they know is expensive and difficult for my client to fight."
Barabash is an accountant. He and co-owner, Allen, operate the agency as a side business.
In their brochure, Barabash and Allen also offer to conduct a background check on a companion to determine her "suitability for a long term relationship" as well as arrange for her immigration and even a pre-nuptial agreement.
As for the charge that many of these women are prostitutes, Allen says: "It ain't what it appears. It's up-front, above-board. Big Apple makes not one penny off prostitution. All our money is made off of travel."
He adds that Big Apple clients are only introduced to women who work in licensed bars. "They are not called prostitutes," he says. "They are called entertainers." According to Allen, the women must obtain a license from their local municipality in order to work in the bar, and to get the license, they must be over 18 and receive periodic checks for sexually transmitted diseases.
Recently, the Philippine government has been cracking down on prostitution and the sex tourism business. In 2000, immigration officials banned Barabash and his tour host, Louis Schonberger, from entering the country.
In May, the government passed an anti-trafficking law making it illegal for individuals to "undertake or organize tours and travel plans consisting of tourism packages or activities for the purpose of utilizing and offering persons for prostitution, pornography or sexual exploitation."
After the attorney general filed suit against Big Apple Oriental Tours, the Philippine consulate general hailed the decision and promised to cooperate in the prosecution of the case.
Luchina Fisher is a writer and producer based in New York.
Equality Now--"Seven-Year Campaign by Equality Now Leads to Unprecedented Legal Action Against Sex Tourism Industry":
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney--"Stop Sleazy Sex Tours Now Say Maloney, Steinem, and Equality Now":