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Special report: Beyond the rainbow

Image: Getty

Jamie Tabberer takes a look at current trends in LGBT travel


Last year’s Out Now Global LGBT 2030 Study valued the global LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) travel market at £163 billion last year. And with the spread of marriage equality, it’s a growing one. According to the Office for National Statistics, the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK resulted in 4,850 weddings in 2014 alone.

But to what extent are LGBT travellers’ tastes evolving beyond tried-and-tested destinations? And are their wants really that different from their straight counterparts? The answer is: yes and no.

“We’ve had a small number of LGBT specialists [as Members] over the years, but they’ve all gone out of business,” says Sean Tipton, ABTA’s media relations manager. “We speak to LGBT travelers and they want to be treated like everybody else; they look to the same travel companies as everybody else.”

As such, many brands don’t offer specific LGBT products, but take a modern, inclusive approach when marketing to LGBTs. “We live in a multicultural, diverse society,” says Hoseasons’ managing director Simon Altham. “So, three years ago, we made a conscious decision to better reflect the UK population as well as the people that work for us.

“We actively target the LGBT market, working with specialist media. We want to ensure that our day-to-day broader marketing is both diverse and inclusive, so we use LGBT imagery and content in our mainstream marketing. Not only does this better reflect our customers, but we know from research that millennials and those sharing millennial values are actively looking at brands who are inclusive when making purchasing decisions.”

Celebrity Cruises also takes an integrated approach to the market. Known for sponsoring Miami Pride and supporting charities like Opening Doors London, they recently launched a toolkit designed to support agents working in the LGBT market.

Jo Rzymowska, vice president and managing director of Celebrity Cruises UK, Ireland and Asia, says, “We do full ship charters for lots of different sectors and one is the LGBT community. You don’t have to be gay, because we’re inclusive. There will be straight people who go because it’s a great party!”

To further underline the subtleties in their approach, she adds, “[The toolkit] isn’t about ‘if you’re gay, this is what we’ll do for you’. It’s talking about how we, as an organisation, are very inclusive. We do recommend certain itineraries, such as Rio Carnival and Cannes Film Festival, that we think an affluent guest would appreciate, gay or straight. We also provide inclusive imagery. If you’re gay you’ll think ‘those people could be me.’ If you’re straight you’ll think ‘those people are having a good time’.”

In a similar vein, luxury tour operator Kuoni also strikes a successful note with LGBT sensitivity. According to its 2017 Worldwide Trends Report, the company’s first full team of LGBT experts in Brighton “resulted in more same-sex holidays than anywhere else in the UK,” with same-sex honeymoons up 22%. Bespoke training materials have since been rolled out across the store network.

“It’s something we don’t necessarily track or flag on the booking,” says Lloyd Sceats-Page, manager of Kuoni’s Kensington store. “To us, it doesn’t matter what sexuality you are. It’s about making sure we’re finding the right thing for clients; diving in enough to make sure we’re building a relationship, but also not making people feel uncomfortable, by saying ‘this is a trans holiday,’ or ‘this is a lesbian holiday’.”

Kuoni’s Honeymoon Trends 2017 report makes for compelling reading. Top was the Maldives, where homosexuality is against the law (although this is rarely enforced); Thailand was second, followed by Indonesia (Bali), Malaysia (also illegal) and the USA. Only the latter, down two places from 2016, recognises same-sex marriage.

“The Maldives is an idyllic honeymoon destination,’ says Lloyd, adding that Kuoni always passes on relevant legal and safety information to LGBT travellers, where appropriate. “It gives luxury, amazing service and beautiful scenery. I’ve just come back from there and, as a gay man, felt comfortable. We booked a same-sex male couple yesterday and they’re going to an amazing resort. They’ve already been six or seven times.”

While the Maldives is relatively safe, last year a Virgin Holidays report found that 1 in 3 LGBT travellers have experienced some form of discrimination while on holiday — 6% faced
a threat of physical violence. In addition, 80% of LGBT travellers said the travel industry isn’t doing enough to inform the LGBT community about local laws prior to departure.

“We tell our members: don’t pigeonhole people, but be culturally sensitive when selling a holiday,” says ABTA’s Tipton. “I remember a while ago a couple went to Tunisia and they had endless trouble; perhaps that travel company should’ve thought about that first.”

Homosexuality is still illegal in more than 76 countries. In at least 14, it’s punishable by death. But even in Russia, where gay sex is legal, the so-called Anti Gay Propaganda law bans the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and anti-gay concentration camps have cropped up in Chechnya, it can be just as risky. The state of LGBT rights worldwide is as complex and disparate as an LGBT person’s willingness or desire to travel to such places for leisure.

Then there’s the USA. Data from internet travel search engine Kayak released in Februaryclaims Donald Trump’s presidency has already cost the US travel industry £143 million in lost revenue from would-be visitors unwilling to risk or support US travel bans. Anti-trans bathroom bills in some states have further left a bad taste in LGBT travellers’ mouths.

“I think one of the interesting trends is what’s happening in the States,’ says Rzymowska from Celebrity Cruises. “In our industry, it’s always about communication and education. It’s never
[a matter of] ‘let’s ban or boycott these destinations.’ It’s about giving out the information. And we do have power as brands. I think what Virgin Holidays is doing is very important.”

Pauline Wilson, Virgin Holidays operations director, explains, “We’ve been working with LGBT charity Stonewall to come up with a traffic light system to give customers the relevant information to help them plan their holiday.”

The red/amber/green motif is due to appear online and in brochures at some point in the future. Interestingly, Virgin Holidays has also bucked the trend by creating exclusive Pride packages to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, in conjunction with Attitude Magazine, which they say sold ‘extremely well’.

“What we also want to do is challenge our [more conservative] suppliers,” adds Wilson. “For instance, we recently convened a meeting with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, over 100 of the most influential people in Caribbean tourism, in Miami. We were able to address how they could better serve the LGBT community.”

Evidently, travel trends in the LGBT market are as segmented as any other and often come down to the individual needs of the visitor. Hence, imparting the correct information is vital. Trans travellers, for example, need highly specific advice, once they choose to disclose their trans identity. In this instance, ABTA’s Tipton warns, “Don’t just [give advice] off the top of your head; you must look into it quite carefully.” Virgin Holidays will cover information for trans travellers within the traffic light system. For example, while Brazil is gay-friendly, it has the highest rate of trans murders worldwide.

LGBT travel trends are getting more complex, but they’re also becoming more open. The 21st Annual LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Survey by CMI found that unlike their older counterparts, millennial US LGBTs are less likely to be influenced by a hotel company’s LGBT-‘friendly’ reputation, as they assume all the major companies are LGBT-friendly. If there’s one lesson we can draw from these findings it’s this: inclusivity is key.

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