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Tough new measures introduced in Italy have sent many customers across the border to brothels in Switzerland. Prostitution is currently booming in Ticino, Switzerland's Italian speaking canton. But many of the girls involved are illegal. The authorities say they are keeping a close eye on the situation. Half a dozen brothels line the road that links the north and south of the canton at Monte Ceneri. The establishments are doing brisk business, to which the stream of visitors attests.
Apart from a few Swiss soldiers and the odd local, most of the clients here and at other Ticino brothels are Italian — as can be seen by the huge number of cars with Italian number plates. Some places in the Lugano and Chiasso region, further south, have an even greater density of brothels. The small village of Melano population: 1, alone has four. Cross-border sex commuters are attracted by the closeness to the A2 motorway through the canton, the standards of comfort, security and hygiene and the competitive prices.
The Italian media have long been talking about the "Ticino phenomenon". The prestigious La Stampa newspaper went so far as to describe the canton in an August article as "a brothel paradise" and "Mecca of luxury", while highlighting establishments' "discrete charm".
Clients may enjoy a certain freedom in Ticino but the same cannot be said for Italy. Brothels have been illegal there for 50 years, which has led to a rise in street prostitution. The government, anxious to change the situation, issued a clampdown decree at the beginning of this year. And in Milan police have stepped up patrols of red light districts.
Video surveillance and the internet are also being employed. Swiss police believe that the Lombardy situation could have consequences for Ticino. In the week in which swissinfo visited Ticino, two new establishments announced that they were opening for business — adding to the 37 places already in operation in the canton. The sex business adapts quickly to the needs of its clients and to offer and demand, say experts. The prostitution boom is a godsend for some of the area's hotel and restaurant owners who have seen better days.