Perhaps more than any other travel segment, LGBT travel is sensitive to recent political developments. By Robert Carlsen
Following the Marriage Equality Act that was passed in June 2015 by the Supreme Court, the flood of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) weddings across the U.S. resulted in an equally impressive honeymoon travel boom and opened the doors to new destinations that welcomed same-sex couples. But today, with the arrival of an ultra-conservative White House armed with the potential to eradicate LGBT advances, that euphoria has been replaced with a high degree of uncertainty about the future.
When San Francisco-based Community Marketing & Incentives (CMI) completed its 21st Annual Survey on LGBT Tourism & Hospitality in December, several respondents added remarks illuminating the fear of traveling to “red” states and facing acrimonious encounters, and highlighting countries that have anti-LGBT tendencies. LGBT travelers are also concerned about workplace nondiscrimination protections, interference with same-sex adoptions and religious freedom issues.
“In many ways, LGBT travel is no different than other travel; we have diverse interests, but we all want to feel safe and welcome wherever we go,” said John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), which is holding its annual global convention May 4-6 in St. Petersburg, Fl. “However, only a fraction of countries legally recognize our relationships and there are more than 70 countries where homosexuality is illegal (some even carrying the death penalty), so for us to be safe requires more research than our heterosexual peers, and sometimes means hiding our true selves.”
Tanzella said that travel agents need to be well-versed on LGBT laws around the world — both positive and negative — so they’re able to keep their clients informed. He added that the rapidly changing political landscape and recent U.S. travel bans have “certainly shaken our industry. IGLTA does not support boycotts or bans. We advocate for travel as a way to build bridges not walls.”
Bryan Herb, co-owner of gay travel tour operator Zoom Vacations in Chicago, said that LGBT travel is being seen more positively than 15 years ago when his business first started. “Hotels, destinations and various venues throughout the world solicit us specifically because we’re serving the LBGT market,” he said. “It’s now widely seen, and correctly, as a very lucrative market of which everybody wants a piece.” Hotels have finally realized, Herb said, that gay people stay at their properties, spend money, dine at restaurants and enjoy spa treatments, among other things. “You can even see how this has changed with advertising,” he said. “Several years ago, if a destination featured a gay couple in an ad, they were seen as brave. Now, if a destination doesn’t have gay couples appearing in any of their advertising, they’ve seen as short-sighted and missing an opportunity. If the gay market is one thing, it’s loyal.”
Dave Fowlie of Cruise Planners in San Diego said he’s seen LGBT bookings rise slightly lately, with clients continuing to book travel later into 2017. Top LGBT cruise destinations for his agency, he said, continue to be Europe, the Caribbean, Australia/New Zealand and South America. Fowlie also has seen a bump in LGBT cruise bookings to Cuba, but isn’t sure how the Trump administration will deal with Cuban travel overall. He said Carnival Cruise Line’s Fathom Travel people-to-people cruise program is also selling well, but its cruise ship, P&O’s Adonia, is moving back into the P&O fleet this May and no replacement has been named at the time of this publication going to press.
IGLTA’s Tanzella said his association’s U.S. members are also interested in visiting Cuba, as well as several Asian destinations and luxury safaris in southern Africa. Zoom Vacations’ Herb said that South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are probably his most popular destinations. LGBT-friendly travel agency Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT), headquartered in New York, also saw a surge in honeymoon trips following the Supreme Court decision, especially to Europe. “When planning European travel, I’ll often arrange private tours using gay or lesbian local guides, which allows my clients to feel comfortable asking cultural questions relevant to them or to see some of the sights that traditional tour guides may not take them to,” said Keith Peri, a travel consultant at VWT’s Atlanta office.
Meanwhile, the research, consulting and training firm CMI documented a rush of LGBT honeymoon trips following the passing of the Marriage Equality Act, but things have since leveled out somewhat, according to David Paisley, senior research director. The current anxiety following the presidential election is very real, but he said it will take some time to see how it all plays out.
The CMI tourism and hospitality survey, conducted from mid-November to early December last year, had more than 4,700 respondents in the U.S. and Canada, representing all age groups pretty evenly. Of the 1,185 study participants who indicated that they’re married, 16% said they’d married in the past year (down from 21% in the 2015 survey). More than 1,660 respondents said they were gay men or lesbians in relationships of five years or more and living with a partner. Of those, 67% were already married, 3% were engaged to be married and 4% were in legal civil unions and domestic partnerships. CMI said this indicates that a high percentage of long-term same-sex couples have already been married over the 12 years in which marriage has been available in increasing numbers of U.S. states. Nearly half of the participants married in the past year indicated that they went on a honeymoon. In a CMI survey conducted last year on marriage and honeymoons, Hawaii was the top choice for same-sex honeymoons at 8%, followed by Florida with 7%. And LGBT families with children under 18 years of age chose vacation destinations that were child-friendly (68%) and hotels that were also child- (64%) rather than LGBT-friendly.
Regarding general LGBT travel, both leisure and business, New York City topped the major metro U.S. and Canada destination rankings, followed by San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago. Breaking it down for lesbians and bisexual women, 18% said they visited New York City, 17% said San Francisco and 13%-14% said Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. For gay and bisexual men, New York City topped out at 25%, followed by Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco at 19%-20% and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale at 16%-17%.
CMI said that millennial LGBT travelers are the generation most interested in cuisine, while baby boomers are most interested in historical attractions. Asking what kind of travel LGBT couples prefer, rest and relaxation scored 69% among gay and bi-men and 73% among lesbian and bi-women. Regarding LGBT microsites on destination websites, CMI’s survey results point to the fact that there’s still a need for LGBT-specific information and microsites on tourism office (DMO/CVB) websites. More than 90% of gay and bi-men and lesbian and bi-women agreed that having an LGBT website makes them feel that the tourism bureau is LGBT-friendly.
In December 2016, two gay professionals in their 60s contacted HE Travel, Key West, Fl., to ask about a trip to Central America, according to the tour operator’s president, Philip Sheldon. They both lived in the Northeast and wanted to visit a close-by, warm destination with a sense of authenticity, while avoiding places overwhelmed by American beachgoers and partiers.
“We discussed Costa Rica and Guatemala and also suggested the Yucatan Peninsula,” said Sheldon. “After considering the alternatives, they chose the Yucatan. Other than flying through the Cancun airport, their route would be off the beaten path.”
As is typical for HE Travel clients, the pair wanted to enjoy a mix of city and country, Sheldon said, so some nights would be in tiny villages in the heart of the peninsula and some nights in Merida, the Yucatan city that has most preserved its Mexican heritage. And also typical of HE Travel clients, value for their dollar is more important than getting a deal or saving money, so they included one of the best local Mayan guides and a driver for the whole experience.
Memorable meals are one of the highlights of their customized trips to destinations such as Italy, India, Argentina and Botswana. So, in the Yucatan, they blended unique Mayan and Mexican culinary experiences in small village tavernas, one of Merida’s best restaurants and pool-side, deep in a cenote (vertical cave).
Sheldon said that this kind of blending of experiences attracts the LGBT market, no matter where the clients want to go.