Cape Town — Fears are mounting that Cape Town and other South African cities will become known internationally as child-sex tourist destinations with an industry akin to that flourishing in south-east Asia and India.
Children's rights activists and police specialists acknowledge that prosecution of men who pay children for sex in South Africa is not easy.
With poverty driving thousands of children on to the streets, the juvenile prostitutes are easy pickings.
Next month, international experts on "sex tourism" will be in Cape Town for a conference organised by The Network Against the Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children in a bid to tackle the problem.
The Network's Bernadette van Vuuren said the first reports of sex tourism were coming in, particularly from Cape Town and Durban.
"Cape Town is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and anywhere you get an increase in tourists, you get the tourists coming for sex," she said.
Ms Van Vuuren was concerned that unless the country sent out a clear message that child sexual abuse would not be tolerated here, there would eventually be a perception that "South Africa is an idyllic sex tourist destination".
She said that while South Africa had all the instruments of child protective legislation and treaties in place, the laws were valid only if they were "living laws, applied laws".
"In the legal system there is a far greater fear of violating the rights of adults than of not protecting the child.
"A child, who is already vulnerable, should be protected in law, and has the constitutional right to be protected by that law. Currently, that is not happening," said Ms Van Vuuren.
Philip Boulton of the police's child protection unit in Mitchell's Plain said existing legislation was difficult to enforce. "Unless police actually catch the guy in the act we cannot do anything, particularly because children are mostly unwilling to give us affidavits."
He explained that if police intervened while the client and the child were talking, they could do nothing unless the child laid a charge. "If, on the other hand, they allowed the child to go ahead and have sex with the client, they would be guilty of allowing a crime to be committed."
"We have been warned by overseas police that South Africa is at risk in respect of sex tourists because poverty forces children on to the streets.
"The pressure on Far East countries and the Philippines to clean up their child-sex trade also means that these tourists will start to look at other countries," he said.
In 1997, Brazil launched a publicity campaign among tour operators in an effort to attract eco-tourists to replace sex tourists. They warned of a crackdown and said foreigners caught having sex with children would be=
In the United Kingdom, the Sex Offenders Act of 1997 gave courts there the power to try cases involving Britons accused of committing sex offences against children in other countries.
The international pressure group, End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, is campaigning for the introduction of a tourism industry code of conduct.
In Italy, a new law came into effect last November to compel all Italian travel agencies to print, on all travel tickets and vouchers, warnings against sexual contact with children.
Cape Town Tourism manager Sheryl Ozinsky said the growth in tourism that Cape Town and South Africa were experiencing was wonderful.
But, she said, there were always challenges, among them that increased tourism brought problems like sex offenders.
Ms Ozinsky said she welcomed next month's conference on the issue because South Africa needed to be proactive and address the concerns before they got out of proportion.
Glynis Rhodes, outdoor programmes co-ordinator for the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force, said there were a lot of child-sex workers in Cape Town, boys and girls, some of whom were as young as seven.
She believed the majority of streetchildren were involved in some form of sex trade.
Ms Van Vuuren said there were two types of sex offenders coming here; those who were part of a recognised paedophile network who shared information and used websites to connect with each other, and then the ordinary tourist who looks for sex with children "by the way".
While the problem of child-sex offenders was primarily at a local and national level now, "the situation on a local level historically leads to international sex tourism", she said.