Targeting Your Niche: Gay and Lesbian Travel

Far-flug destinations becoming increasingly popular for these travelers

By: Steven Rosen

Gay and lesbian travelers are discovering new destinations from Costa Rica to Cape Town, while continuing to favor long-popular ones like Miami Beach, San Francisco and Palm Springs.

Several Western-state travel agents have noted that this year South and Central America are especially gaining popularity with the gay and lesbian travel market, which remains strong despite sluggish general demand for leisure travel.

Four Western-state travel agents who market to this clientele two in California, one in Las Vegas and one in suburban Denver all report that bookings remain constant with several new trends.

“Travel is a buzzword in the gay and lesbian community,” said Steve Lord, co-owner of Lakewood, Colo.-based All-Inclusive Vacations.

“Travel in the gay community has become a large niche market because there is more disposable income for travel and customers are loyal to the travel agent who treats them well,” he said.

Lord, who co-owns his business with partner Jeff Gregory, lists among his Top 10 destinations for gay tourism “cities that court different minority groups: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans.”

But he also mentions some additional resorts that are hot including Blue Chairs Hotel, a gay beach resort in Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta.

“The section of the beach by the hotel is known as ‘Blue Chairs’,’’ Lord says. “They’re all painted blue, and that’s where all the gals and guys sit. If you’re not staying at the hotel, they charge you $5 and you get two free beers.”

Another hot location is the La Plantacion guesthouse on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, which is operated by the gay/lesbian resort chain Big Ruby’s.

The guesthouse there overlooks Manuel Antonio National Park amid a rainforest, and is near a gay beach.

Lord says the popularity of the Dominican Republic is growing as it has begun to offer specific resorts for gay and lesbian travelers. Lord also lists the Greek island of Mykonos and Spain’s Mallorca.

And while Sydney traditionally has drawn gay tourists for its Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, held at the end of February to the beginning of March, the entire country is now a favorite gay destination year-round.

“It’s very U.S.-friendly, and very gay-friendly,” he says.

At San Francisco’s Friends of Dorothy Travel, consultant Troy Coalman says South America is also growing in popularity.

“And not just Rio, which has always been a gay area. There actually are gay tour operators going to Machu Picchu,” he says. “It has to do with the spirituality aspect. That’s a big draw for the gay couples who go there.”

Coalman says gay and lesbian travelers are also becoming interested in Cape Town, South Africa, which is trying hard to become a post-apartheid “open society” in general.

Also becoming more popular with this niche travel market are the free-from-the-Iron-Curtain cities of unified Berlin, Prague and Budapest.

“There’s a big push by the Berlin government because the mayor is gay,” he says.

In the United States, Palm Springs and Miami/Fort Lauderdale are in-demand resorts.

And Coalman lauds the relatively new Miami-based Seadream Yacht Club, which sails two sleek 100-passenger luxury-class yachts to the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

“They do some something different. And gay travelers, in our experience, look for something that’s not the usual,” he says.

At David Tours of Corona del Mar, Calif., owner David Rubin mentions Provincetown, Cape Town, New York, London, Sydney and Paris as popular locations.

Rubin, whose travel agency also organizes and customizes tours, says that Cape Town’s Mother City Queer Project, a December costume party, has become a major event on the gay party circuit.

“Fort Lauderdale and Palm Springs have very high-quality guesthouses, including something virtually up to the standards of a Four Seasons,” he says. “With the gay-friendly attitude of their governments and their advertising in gay publications, they have become popular.”

Rubin says the gay-owned Royal Palms guesthouse in Fort Lauderdale is popular with clients.

He also says French-speaking Montreal has become a top destination as a result of outreach efforts by the local tourism board Quebec province published a travel poster in 1998 announcing itself as gay-friendly.

And because David Tours specializes in Scandinavia, it has done well booking trips to Copenhagen.

“It has a history of an open society,” Rubin says. “It helped Jews during the Holocaust and always has been interested in human rights.”

In Las Vegas, Prestige Travel/American Express, which has an agent specializing in the gay market, does a sizable business, via its site, booking people into the city.

“We now have one gay-owned resort, Blue Moon,” said John Berman, the agency’s director of leisure travel. “But a good deal of our gay business here is upscale the Bellagio, the Venetian.”

Outside Nevada, Berman says a majority of his gay business is to Hawaii. And gay clientele are also going to London, Mexico, Australia, Tahiti, Miami, Key West, Canada, and aboard the Seattle-based Windstar Cruises, which operates three motorized sailing vessels that cruise worldwide.

“The most interesting aspect of this business I see is that it’s branching out,” Berman says. “People are not just going to special events.”