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While some travel destinations have put out a GO HOME sign for gay and lesbian tourists, a growing number of cities and countries are practically tripping over one another to bring gay guests in the door.

It's not quite war yet, but the centuries-old rivalry between France and England has heated up as each country courts the lesbian and gay travel market. In a first-of-its-kind booklet touting England's attractions to gay travelers, the image of Oscar Wilde is trotted out to represent the country's literary tradition. Excusezmoi? Jacques Caradec, director of the French government tourist office's West Coast division, is eager to point out the little detail that the flamboyant writer is not buried in England but in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

"Remember that the British put Oscar Wilde in jail when they found out about his homosexuality--now they're trying to use him," Caradec says in a good-natured jab, pointing out the welcome many queer intellectual expatriates historically got in Paris. "We don't want to argue with the British over who is the best, but they have a campaign right now saying that [London is] the number 1 [gay] city in. Europe. I think it's a bit crazy, personally." Amsterdam still gets his vote as the Continent's reigning gay capital, but France, one of the latest countries to join the gay marketing blitz, is hoping to put the gay back in "gay Paris."

While the battle rages over which European city is the gay mecca of the moment, gay travelers can only benefit from the growing line of suitors eager to wine and dine them. In the last couple of years, word has spread to tourism boards that gay people are a hot niche.

"I think destinations are realizing this is a group of people who loves to travel and has the money to travel, so let's promote our destination to this group," says Aaron Kampfe, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, a 1,500-member organization that has benefited nicely as mainstream airlines, hotel chains, and tour operators have joined the association. Destinations have competed to host the group's annual convention--both London and Munich are vying to hold the convention in 2001, with a decision expected by September--and the roster of exhibitors at the group's May convention in Minneapolis ranged from the city of Oakland, Calif., to United Airlines.

Statistics are certainly intriguing tourism officials. According to IGLTA, gays and lesbians spend $17 billion on travel every year. Other research, reported by Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based gay travel consulting firm, showed that lesbians and gays were twice as likely as travelers overall to take a vacation in the past year and that half of them took two vacations in the same year. Since most do not have children, they also spend more money once they get there. Tourism boards view them as the kind of travelers they want: sophisticated and educated people who appreciate the arts and fine dining. They're also viewed as "early adopters" or trendsetters who will seek out more unusual destinations.

With those appealing demographics, the British Tourist Authority has embarked on the most ambitious effort yet to draw gay people to the island nation's shores. The government's tourism agency has a 15-member staff devoted to the gay market and has pooled a budget of $500,000 with such partners as British Airways. In the last couple of years, the BTA has gotten out its gay-friendly message through banner advertising on gay Web sites, information tables at pride celebrations and gay association conventions, a special toll-free telephone number, and a clickable rainbow link on its official Web site. The most ambitious element of the campaign is a slick 20-page booklet with photographs of same-sex couples walking arm in arm in front of Big Ben and hamming it up in a British phone booth.

The tourism agency is hoping to show travelers that there's gay life beyond London, especially in postindustrial cities such as Manchester, which has emerged as a lively center of nightlife and fashion in recent years.

"We felt the product fit was right," says Louise Bryce, the campaign's project leader for the BTA. "We felt we could put our hand on our heart and promote Britain to the gay community because we felt we were a gay-friendly country. There's no point in encouraging people to come to your country if they're not going to feel safe and comfortable there."

While the Netherlands has long been known for its openness to gay visitors, others making a move into the gay market are Australia and the Canadian province of Quebec. Both have sponsored groups of gay journalists and tour operators and have worked to help local tour operators promote their trips.

Quebec has published its own brochure called "Gay-Friendly Quebec" and has worked with gay-friendly tour operators and others in the hospitality industry to develop new gay-specific tour packages. In July, France expects to begin distributing its own brochure. Other locales with a buzz are the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, South Africa.

Some tourism officials have attempted to leverage off established gay events, such as Montreal's Black and Blue Ball and Sydney's Mardi Gras, to promote the destination and perhaps encourage visitors to make a return trip at another time of the year.

For gay-owned travel companies that have long served gays and lesbians, the travel industry's newfound enthusiasm for these travelers represents competition, but it also appears to benefit everyone in the business. Charlie Rounds, president of Minneapolis-based RSVP Productions, known for its all-gay cruises, says he was flatly turned down in 1996 by the BTA when he approached officials there about providing assistance to a British-bound cruise. (To be fair, the French refused too, he says.) Most agree that the more open-minded attitude of British prime minister Tony Blair has ushered in a new era. It helps too that Chris Smith, the government's minister of culture, media, and sport, who oversees the tourism agency, is gay.

"I'm so thrilled that those guys have turned it around," Rounds says. "Anybody that's spending promotional money to raise awareness of gay [travel] eventually will help us. Maybe they take a couple of people away, but I bet the awareness is raised by 20 other people."

Robert Pfaff, marketing director of Alyson Adventures, a Boston-based gay adventure travel outfitter, says business is so good that the company recently had to create his position. The five-year-old company has been adding trips each year, and he says he has received significant offers from companies that want to create promotional tie-ins with the agency. Now that gays and lesbians are more out and open, Pfaff says, it's only natural that tourism groups would seek them out as a market. "Marketing in general is becoming more niche-oriented, and people tend to think in terms of segmented markets anyway," he says.

The airlines, such as American Airlines and Lufthansa, also have spurred much of the move into the gay market because they have the funding to back up a marketing campaign and have a vested interest in promoting their destinations, says Tom Roth, president of Community Marketing.

"Gay and lesbian people within the ranks of tourism offices and airlines have come out and said to their bosses, `There's a great opportunity here,'" Roth says. These days tourism officials rarely blink an eye when they're contacted by a gay journalist about doing a story.

While travel destinations are busy trying to make money off gay visitors, the exchange is more than a monetary one. "Anytime a government is spending money promoting travel for gay and lesbians, it's a de facto recognition of us, and that's huge in our everyday struggle for civil rights," Rounds says. "It's got to help the people in those countries as they fight for their own [rights]."

However, Judy Dlugacz, president of Olivia Cruises and Resorts, says that while she is delighted by this new enthusiasm regarding gay tourism, she adds that government interest alone can't guarantee the kind of reception openly gay people may encounter during the actual vacation. "It's not the government that makes those kinds of decisions for the individual," she says. "You can be encouraged to come by a government, but that doesn't necessarily mean that things have changed much. I think you have to do your research."

Savage is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune and coauthor of Fromer's Gay & Lesbian Europe, published in June.



The effort to attract gay tourists is hardly confined to overseas destinations. Many U.S. cities have made their own special efforts to draw gay visitors. Some metropolises, such as San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles, are long known as meccas for gay tourists. But increasingly other cities are drawing on their own rich gay heritages to lure visitors. Minneapolis, for example, has made a concerted effort to attract gay tourists. Philadelphia has also been aggressive in portraying itself as a must-see destination. Earlier this year the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. initiated a gay and lesbian task force to help the city, which has been active in the gay market for the last few years, further hone its message to gay travelers. The city is trying to convince gay people that the city's new tourism motto, "The Place That Loves You Back," applies to them too. The city already publishes a twice-yearly newsletter geared to gay travel agents and operators, lists a roster of gay and lesbian events, and recruits gay and lesbian associations to hold their meetings there, attempting to piggyback off the Millennium March on Washington for the annual PrideFest America cultural symposium.
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Title Annotation:overseas places that are safe for gay travelers
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jul 20, 1999

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