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Cruising Is Back! Here's Why That Matters to Queer Travelers

A cruise ship on ocean with rising sun

After the devastating impacts of the pandemic, the cruise industry is rebounding. And once again, LGBTQ+ travelers are leading the way.

At cruise travel’s peak in 2019, 30 million passengers hit the seas and rivers each year.

Then the travel industry cratered in the face of the global pandemic and worldwide lockdowns. Cruise ships became viewed as one of the most dangerous places to be. Some ships were not allowed into ports, forced instead to remain at sea for long periods of time.

Earlier this year Cruise Lines International Association, the leading organization of the global cruise community, released its 2022 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook. The annual report revealed that only 5.8 million people took a cruise in 2020, a loss of 81 percent from 2019. Forty-nine percent of cruise-supported employees lost their jobs.

Travel has always been about more than vacationing for LGBTQ+ Americans. It is an avenue for us to find community, to go places more accepting, to be our most authentic selves among others like ourselves.

Kelli Carpenter recently reflected on founding the queer family cruise company R Family Vacations, saying it became more than a company, “It became a community.”

Indeed, gender scholar Liz Montegary tells Out Traveler, “booking a cruise — could be experienced as [a] politicized [act]. Not only were these travelers doing the political work of building community, they were also increasing their visibility as valuable consumers deserving of state recognition and legal protections.”

Cruising has been a particularly important part of LGBTQ+ travel, as a chartered ship could provide a space safe, leaving homophobia and discrimination behind as it left port for friendlier waters. When straights can be the biggest threat to your wellbeing, a boat full of queers could be the safest place in the world.

 

Joyful black woman on a cruise ship

 

Queer travelers have previously been shown to return to travel more quickly than their straight counterparts after a disruptive event (most notably after 9-11). By early 2021, the majority of respondents (73 percent) to an International LGBTQ+ Travel Association survey said they were ready to plan their next major vacation.

Proclaiming “Taking a cruise could cost less than filling your gas tank,” in July the Washington Post reported on cruise lines offering bargain basement prices, citing a $25 a night offer from Carnival, a company that has ships with the capacity to hold 6,600 passengers, and apparently was still having trouble selling rooms.

But that doesn’t reflect the situation for LGBTQ+ cruise companies, which generally charter smaller boats (for example the women-majority Olivia Travel only books ships with capacities of around 2,200 passengers). Olivia’s founder Judy Dlugacz, tells Out Traveler, “Cruising and our resorts and adventures are all at capacity this year except for a handful of spaces.” And she adds, “Next year promises to be Olivia’s biggest year in her history.”

Dlugacz muses, “Is it all back?” about the cruising industry. “I think people are wanting to explore and enjoy life and perhaps there is an even stronger desire to travel than ever, after the restrictions and the political upheavals we have all endured.”

Queers are booking LGBTQ+ cruises for what Montegary calls “the fantasy of escaping the straight world and sailing away in a queer utopia.” But we are also booking vacations with more mainstream companies like Celebrity Cruises and Virgin Voyages, which Montegary says offer “the promise of inclusion and assimilation.”

But do we just blend in with the straights the minute we board a mainstream cruise ship? Ultimately the gender theorist doesn’t think so. “We can’t really know what kinds of queer desires and alliances — erotic, political, or otherwise — might take shape on the decks of these ‘gay-friendly’ cruises,” she acknowledges.

But she adds, “I have the utmost of faith in the capacity of queer sexual cultures to permeate these new configurations.”

Out Traveler is delving deeper into cruising, examining its relationship with our fights for LGBTQ+ equality, the impact of companies like Olivia, the future of R Family, guides to some mainstream cruises — and yes, even considering that other kind of cruising by exploring where queer desires and travel meet.

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