My husband and I arrived after midnight and presented ourselves at the front desk of the hotel. The man at reception greeted us but became flustered and scribbled furiously with correction fluid in his register. “I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen. They seem to have booked you a double bed.”
There was a pause.
“Yes, that’s what we want. A double, not a twin,” I replied.
As the penny dropped, the man at reception turned puce and scribbled so hard in the register his pen went through the page. “Room 106” were the only other words he could manage. We laughed. Wearily. We’ve got used to it by now.
‘Gay travel’ is big business these days with everyone from airlines to hotels and tour operators chasing the ‘pink pound’ — and dollar and euro. Pride weeks from Honolulu to Auckland pull in millions from those who want to celebrate diversity and enjoy a good party; and they’re increasingly important for tourist boards in cities such as Tel Aviv, Madrid, Sydney and New York. Tourism bosses in the Big Apple guesstimate that LGBT-related travel brings in around $7 billion annually for the city.
But is there a genuine desire to help LGBT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) travellers or is the travel industry just jumping on a bandwagon?
“Definitely not,” replies a spokeswoman for Kuoni, which introduced a dedicated team of LGBT travel experts last year, when I suggest the latter. “The point of our project is not a PR exercise, it’s a service initiative. Our senior team and sales training team have gone out of their way to consult, prepare and train, and many hours of time have gone into this.”
Hoseasons is another mainstream holiday firm that has been commended by Stonewall, the LGBT-rights charity, for its positive and proactive service for gay travellers. “What we can do as an industry,” says company boss Simon Altham, “is to work with resort providers to make sure resort staff are trained and welcoming so LGBT travellers don’t have anxieties. And there should be policies in place that should someone receive homophobic abuse on holiday there are procedures and a commitment to deal with that.”
Laurence Hicks, who has recently set up Inclusive Retreats with his partner, former England rugby international Sam Stanley, praises Belmond’s hotels for “providing ‘his and his’ and ‘hers and hers’ toiletries and suitable bath robes for same-sex couples. These properties need to be commended and easily found among LGBT travellers.”
Virgin Holidays doesn’t pitch itself directly to gays and lesbians and doesn’t feel the need to, says managing director David Geer. “Marketing holidays direct to the LGBT community seems like an antiquated approach. Instead we invest a lot of money and effort letting all of our customers know what we stand for as a brand. We want people to understand that we are accepting, welcoming and tolerant of all customers and believe that everyone can take on the world.”
But David Matthews, director of Further Afield, a collection of hand-picked, gay-friendly places to stay, say there is still a need for sites aimed directly at LGBT travellers. “The term ‘gay friendly’ might seem out of touch with today’s more open-minded and inclusive society, but it definitely still has resonance outside of more liberal regions in Britain.
“We had a lesbian couple a couple of years ago in a resort hotel, and their kids were playing with other kids and getting on fine. But then when the other parents realised they were a same-sex couple they actually stopped their kids playing with them. You think this can’t happen in this day and age but sadly it does. We want to identify hotels where everyone feels comfortable.”
Darren Burn, managing director of gay travel company OutofOffice.com agrees that there is a need for specialist operators like his. “We’ve mystery shopped many mainstream firms with typical questions that our clients would want to know, like ‘will I have a double bed’ and ‘is it actually okay for gay couples to travel to the Maldives’, and usually they don’t know the answer.”
The truth about LGBT travellers is that they’re just like anybody else on holiday and don’t want to be treated differently. Yes madam by the pool, we are gay, our wives aren’t coming down from the room any time soon; there’s no need to whisper behind your hand, we can see you. As one friend said to me when I gave her my coming-out news: “I thought gay people were slim and well dressed?” Sorry but whether at home or on holiday, we can’t be fabulous all the time and for that alone I apologise.
October: World Gay Rodeo Final, Albuquerque, USA
Cowboys? Gay cowboys? Oh, hello. The mission of the International Gay Rodeo Association is to ‘break stereotypes’ — and have fun along the way, as well as raise money for LGBT charities. After a series of qualifying local rodeos, the finals take place in New Mexico from 20-22 October. Both men and women take part in bull, steer and bronc riding, barrel racing, as well as more frivolous activities, such as goat dressing. In the evenings there are parties with drag kings and queens from across the country.
November: Buenos Aires Pride
As the nights become longer in the UK, spring is in the air in Argentina, which was the first country in South America to legalise same-sex marriage. Buenos Aires is a city that has a long liberal history that survived the military repression of the 1970s and early 80s. Pride here culminates with a parade on the 7th that caps a week of celebration. That aside, there’s plenty to keep you occupied, including queer tango evenings, nightlife at chic bars and dive pubs, and the chance to explore the city with a free local guide. cicerones.org.ar
December: Mariah Carey in concert in New York City, USA
Viva La Diva! Unless you’re already a fan it’s hard to convey just exactly how camp an evening with ‘Mimi’ can actually be, but take it from us, the answer is ‘very’. For the last two years Ms Carey has had a seasonal residency at the historic Beacon Theatre singing all her hits, and in the past has lit the Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center and sung at the New Year’s Eve Concert in Times Square. December in the Big Apple is all about Mariah.
January: Whistler Pride and Ski Festival, Canada
The week of 21-28 January is a great excuse to mingle with like-minded ski and snowboard enthusiasts from all over the world, with Whistler attracting some two million visitors a year. During the day you can scoot down Whistler/Blackcomb’s array of pistes and backcountry bowls, while at night an array of DJs, drag queens and comedians provide the entertainment and keep the après-ski buzzing — the most fun you can have in a pair of salopettes and still look cool.
February: Rio Carnival, Brazil
In February would you rather be in squally Britain or partying under blue skies at the Rio Carnival (9-14th)? While not specifically a gay event, you can’t tell us that millions of people samba’ing along in skimpy sungas — Brazil’s equivalent to the Speedo — doesn’t throw off a distinctly queer vibe. While the nightly parade in the Sambadrome is a true bucket-list event, the real fun is in the neighbourhood parties (blocos). The Scala Nightclub also offers themed balls every night during Carnival.
March: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Australia
2018 will be the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras in Sydney, with the main parade and party night taking place on the 3rd. Expect around 300,000 people to line the route of the parade, which is traditionally led off by the 200 or so ‘Dykes on Bikes’. During the month preceding it, there is a host of queer-themed events such as the Mardi Gras Film Festival, Bondi Beach drag race and panel discussions on equality. Use your down time to chill out on Sydney’s beach Tamarama (aka Glamarama).
April: The Dinah, Palm Springs, USA
Entertainer Dinah Shore set up a women’s golf tournament in California in 1972 and it’s still going strong — next year’s event finishes on the 2nd and has a prize of $2.7m (£2.1m). It’s now known as the ANA Inspiration and held at Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, one of the five major championships on the LPGA women’s professional golf circuit. From that has sprung ‘The Dinah’, one of the biggest lesbian party weekends in America and billed as ‘the largest girl party music festival in the world’.
May: Eurovision, Portugal
Here are the votes from the fabulous jury. There’s no two ways about it: Eurovision is camper than a row of tents, cheesier than mature Cheddar and a fantastic excuse for a party whether you’re in Lisbon, Leicester or Llangollen. At the time of writing, a venue had not yet been confirmed but it’s likely to be the MEO Arena in the Portuguese capital, following the soulful victory of Salvador Sobral in Kiev. If you want to join the festivities on the big night, you need to get on the case because tickets go fast once they’re released. ogae.uk
June: Tel Aviv Pride
In June there are more Pride parades that you can shake a stick at… New York, Bali, Barcelona, Edinburgh and Seoul, for example. We’d suggest Tel Aviv, a liberal city in an intolerant region where Pride celebrates diversity. Tel Aviv is a fun place at the best of times where walking down the street hand in hand with your same-sex other half won’t provoke a second glance. The LGBT section of the city beach is by the Hilton Hotel. Drop into Shpagat on Nahalat Binyamin Street, which is cafe by day, gay bar by night.
July: L Fest, Leicestershire, England
This music, arts and comedy festival for women was held in the grounds of Prestwold Hall in Leicestershire for the first time this year with workshops, galleries, DJs in trees and beer ‘served as cold as your ex-girlfriend’s heart’. Expect musical acts in the big top, silent disco, queer cinema, massages and roasting marshmallows over a fire with new friends. For something sunnier check out L Fest, an offshoot festival held on the Costa Blanca in Spain from June 1-8, 2018.
August: Reykjavik Pride
If ever there was a city where being gay is no big deal these days, then it’s Reykjavik. But still, those Icelanders love any excuse for a party, eh? Especially with the weather in the balmy mid-teens in August. Hinsegin Dagar — that’s ‘queer days’ for those of us who haven’t mastered Icelandic yet — takes place this month with a parade through the centre of town. There’s plenty else going on too such as movies, education, dance, music and, of course, a whopping great party afterwards. Dates for 2018 TBC.
September: Southern Comfort Transgender Conference, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
This transgender conference was first held in Atlanta in 1991 but moved to Florida three years ago. You’ll find a mix of events, with everything from seminars on current transgender issues to boat cruises, shopping trips, comedy evenings and cocktail soirées. Fort Lauderdale is home to a large resident gay population and attracts plenty of queer holidaymakers. Dates for 2017 are 14-16 September, and dates for 2018 are TBC. sunny.org/lgbt
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)