When gay travel pioneer Hanns Ebensten--who passed away at the age of 82 last July--started the first gay tour operation in 1972, he felt obligated to "warn all hotels, bus companies, and owners of ships I chartered…that I was proposing to bring a group of homosexual men." Among the companies that felt squeamish about accepting business from a group of gay men was Pan American World Airways. And we all know what happened to Pan Am: Buh-bye…you messed with the wrong niche market.
OK, so maybe a gay travel boycott didn’t ground Pan Am’s planes, but we’ve still come a long way, baby! Hotels, airlines, and tourism boards are clamoring to see who can outwelcome the next wanderlusting wave of out travelers, as attested by the endlessly hyped "gay travel phenomenon" that continues to generate oceans of ink in both alternative and mainstream media outlets. Nearly 35 years after Ebensten’s first tour, a river rafting journey down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, gay and lesbian travelers are issuing a different kind of warning: If you don’t show your gay-friendly colors, your hotel, airline, or destination won’t get a piece of our $55 billion travel industry.
According to a September survey of Gay.com members conducted by Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco–based LGBT market research company, 77.6% of respondents said that they were more likely to choose to travel to destinations that are known for being gay-friendly. If a destination’s progress on gay rights is any indication, gay-friendliness made significant strides around the world in 2006, setting the stage for bumper crops of gay and lesbian tourists in 2007.
In November, South Africa joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and Spain in opening civil marriage to same-sex couples. That same month Israel’s supreme court ruled that the government is required to officially recognize same-sex marriages performed in other countries. Even traditionally Catholic Mexico City passed a same-sex civil union law. And in Brazil antidiscrimination laws and other basic civil rights laws have been extended to gay and lesbian citizens. Closer to home, New Jersey has backed a civil unions bill, promising to shine the spotlight on Garden State gay-popular getaways like Asbury Park and Cape May.
Way out west, even the red states are betting heavily on gay visitors. As part of a big pink gamble in 2006, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority produced its first promotional guide targeting gays and lesbians. Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, and California’s Lake Tahoe are among numerous tourism boards that have recently begun courting gay travelers (the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority recently announced that it’s taking over a gay ski event started by a local gay and lesbian foundation). Meanwhile, in true-blue California, regional tourism ties have strengthened as San Diego, Palm Springs, and West Hollywood prepare to jointly launch GoGaySoCal.com, offering a bounty of resources for sun-seeking queer tourists.
As for the gay-friendly skies, Southwest Airlines is practically painting its planes’ tail fins pink. The airline has offered health benefits to domestic partners since 1999, and after scoring a lower-than-expected rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index in 2004, the company formed a team of 20 gay and lesbian employees to address the inadequacy. Southwest is now one of the preferred airline brands among LGBT travelers, along with American Airlines, according to a Travel Industry Association survey released December 6.
On the hotel front, Hyatt recently launched a queer ad campaign, and W Hotels is continuing its popular gay-marketed Pride 365 package through April 1, 2007--but this one comes with a twist. W is catching on that the queer crowd favors not only companies that support us sharing the same bed with our partners but those that are in bed with the LGBT movement itself. The package includes a one-year membership to LGBT civil rights organization Lambda Legal--with a discounted room rate and two cocktails thrown in for good measure. Gays and lesbians are spending more and more time in hotel rooms--15 nights on average, according to the Gay.com/CMI survey--and we want to feel supported and empowered every time we settle up and check out.
Of course, we want many things. We want to discover ever more luxurious amenities, gadgets, and services: When New York City’s famed Plaza Hotel reopens next year, each room will have an easy-to-use touch-screen device for ordering a bottle of champagne, making dinner reservations, and calling a taxi. We want to stay in one-of-a-kind works of art: Among the 100-plus hotels opening in Beijing in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is Dutch superstar-chitect Rem Koolhaas’s Television Cultural Center, which will include a 300-room luxury hotel. (Beijing has a new homegrown gay tour company, Go Pink China, set to capitalize on the surge of gay travelers that will visit during the next two years.)
What it really boils down to is this: When you come home from China or Sydney or Marrakesh or Vancouver (the top-rated international destination in the Gay.com/CMI survey) and hold court at the local gay bar or gather with friends over dinner or swap travel tales in the locker room at the gym, you want to share your latest "life-changing" adventure (OK, maybe a bit of healthy one-upmanship is involved). If that adventure happens to include the e-butler you could summon on your poolside PDA (at the St. Regis chain), a choice of 15 soaps (at the Rome Cavalieri Hilton), or a "Blackberry hand treatment" (available at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort and Spa in Indian Wells, Calif.), even better. We expect hotels, airlines, and other travel businesses to bend over backward make us feel welcome. The 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton is just icing on the cake.
TO INFINITY, AND BEYOND!
As you traverse the globe this year, be it on one of the small boutique airlines that became trendy in 2006 (Eos, MiMa, Privatair), in the forthcoming Airbus A380 (those mammoth super-long-haul planes finally go airborne this year after months of delays), on the new high-speed Qinghai-Tibet train, in a convertible cherry-red Mustang hogging Route 66, or via floating gay utopia (LGBT transatlantic and transpacific cruises are planned in 2007!), remember: There’s really no limit to where we as out travelers go next. Final frontier, anyone? Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo begins suborbital flights as early as 2009. You can bet that Mr. Hanns Ebensten would have already had his flight suit pressed.