Gay and lesbian travelers seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Caribbean. That is, we apparently love it--for sun and sand, proximity, and price point--but the Caribbean, or at least large swathes of it, can't stand us. Much of the generally conservative Caribbean archipelago is afflicted with endemic--and, in some places, epidemic--homophobia. However, there are pockets of tolerance, such as Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. Barthélemy, and--despite a well-publicized bashing in April of a group of American gay men--the Franco-Dutch island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten.
And gay and lesbian visitors continue to frequent the Caribbean, antigay or not. More than one out of every 10 of us vacationed in the Caribbean in the last year. That's according to the 11th annual LGBT Travel Survey conducted by San Francisco research firm Community Marketing this August, which found 11% of queer respondents had visited at least one of the islands in the region in the past year.
Although seemingly small, that figure puts the Caribbean smack-dab in the middle of the gay-travel popularity pack. The islands trail Canada and Mexico, which were visited by about a fifth of all LGBT vacationers, but rank ahead of some competing, if farther-flung, destinations considered to be more welcoming, such as Australia and Central and South America.
Puerto Rico is the runaway favorite, attracting 7% of all queer travelers, followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands, the French Caribbean--including St. Barthélemy, St. Martin, Guadeloupe, and Martinique--and then Dutch jurisdictions such as Sint Maarten, Aruba, and Curaçao. The Caribbean is also tops with gays and lesbians when it comes to cruise vacations, selected by some 65% of queer cruisers, according to Community Marketing.
RSVP Vacations and Olivia are each offering one cruise in the region next year and Atlantis Events two, including a sold-out eastern Caribbean sailing aboard the world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's 4,370-passenger, 160,000-ton Freedom of the Seas.
Thanks to years of sporadic antigay protests or government actions in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Jamaica, gay cruises tend to call at friendlier, or at least less hostile, ports--such as Key West, Fla.; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; or San Juan, Puerto Rico--or cruise lines' own private islands, including Royal Caribbean's Labadee, off Haiti, and Princess Cruises' Princess Cay.
"Itineraries tend to be the number 1 motivator," notes Jerry McHugh, Community Marketing's manager of research and development, "so which islands will be visited definitely influences whether LGBT travelers get on a cruise ship."
Olivia, however, will feature a port call in Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands on its January 27, 2007, Caribbean sailing, despite regular homophobic posturing by the nation's chief minister and opposition politicians.
In fact, McHugh describes the Caribbean as "a very popular region for gay and lesbian travel."
That's despite nearly a decade's worth of well-publicized antigay incidents, from the banning of an Atlantis Events cruise in the notoriously hostile Cayman Islands back in 1997 through the attack this spring in Sint Maarten, usually thought to be more tolerant.
So why--in a world full of safe, friendly, and glamorous destinations where the queer travel dollar would be warmly welcomed--do LGBT vacationers still yearn to twist open a Red Stripe, lime (patois for "chill out") under a palm tree, and make a play at "feeling irie" in the Caribbean?
Are we suffering from a form of battered-life-partner syndrome? Are we--or the gay men among us, at least--queens of denial? Well, yes and no. First, homophobia or no homophobia, money matters. For all the hype about gay disposable income, LGBT travelers, like all consumers, factor in price when making travel plans. And a Caribbean holiday can come cheap.
"If travelers are coming from New York and there's a charter for only $199 to the Caribbean, some people won't care if there are gay rights there or not," says travel agent Kirk Dalrymple, owner of Yankee Clipper Travel in San Francisco. "Price matters for any traveler, but I do think gay people need to stand up and look at what's going on."
Second, it is possible to vacation safely and serenely in the Caribbean as an out gay man or lesbian, either from the relative safety of an all-gay charter cruise or on a land-based resort stay. But there's no way around it: Discretion is required; check your activist impulses at airport security.
The picture isn't all bad. A few voices are being raised against homophobia or in favor of more tolerance of gay travelers in the Cayman Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, the Bahamas, and even that nexus of negativity Jamaica. The Netherlands Antilles island of Curaçao has actually launched a gay tourism marketing campaign.
"There's a real mixed message that comes from the Caribbean, which is comprised of a lot of small countries with a lot of different customs," notes McHugh. "They're all over the board, from very gay-friendly to very unfriendly."
For example, Sint Maarten, long a popular port of call for gay cruises, may have gotten a bad public relations rap for bungled police handling of the vicious attack on New York tourists Ryan Smith and Richard Jefferson earlier this year, but tourism officials claim gay visitors are by and large welcome and safe. The island is even home to a gay-run inn--the 12-room Delfina Hotel--just a stone's throw from clothing-optional Copecoy Beach, a magnet for gay tourists.
Stephan Ferrier, spokesman for the Sint Maarten Tourist Office in New York, says, "One incident seems to have overshadowed the level of friendliness gay tourists experience on the island."
"We'd never had such an incident before," he adds. "Sint Maarten has a laid-back mentality with a more blasé attitude toward gay lifestyles."
Some predict an attitude adjustment about gay travelers across the Caribbean come January. That's when new federal regulations kick in requiring U.S. citizens who travel abroad--including most of the Caribbean, save Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands--to carry passports. While only one fifth of all Americans now have passports, some 71% of gay travelers already do--making them an extremely attractive demographic for foreign destinations.
The new post-9/11 passport requirement is "definitely going to cut into tourism in general seen by the Caribbean," says McHugh. "They're going to be hurting for U.S. tourists [and] gays and lesbians are much more prepared to travel to the than the mainstream travelers are."
Ironically, it may be U.S. federal law--which fails to grant gays and lesbians equal protection at home--that may, thanks to an alluring gay greenback, inadvertently render the Caribbean a whole lot friendlier for Friends of Dorothy.
Not that activist agents such as Dalrymple are impressed.
"Why spend our hard-earned dollars on governments that support homophobia?" he asks, noting that he steers clients away from the Caribbean and toward Tahiti, Hawaii, and Mexico. "I didn't drink Florida orange juice for three years; it wasn't because I don't like it. It's because I hoped I was sending a message to Anita Bryant and the stupid people who sponsored her."