At the End of the Rainbow
There’s no shortage of LGBT vacation travel options for 2014.
by David Goldberg
“The good news is that our community is traveling extensively,” says Tom Baker, president of Aquafest Cruises. Indeed we are. Despite a tough economy, LGBT travelers are still making the most of their vacation time, whether by charter cruises, group cruises, independent travel, or international packages. LGBT travel has evolved far beyond the old stereotype of poolside circuit parties—although if that’s your thing, there are plenty of options for you. OutSmart has collected insights from some of Houston’s top travel experts on hot tickets, travel tips, and changing trends.
Cruising? (At sea?) LGBT travelers now have more options when it comes to the environment and destination of their cruise. “More people are moving away from the all-gay cruises and towards groups,” says Michael Henshaw, owner of Gayribbean Cruises. All-gay charter ships may still be popular, but their premium pricing and saturating environments don’t work for some. But niche group packages of up to 500 LGBT guests on an otherwise mainstream ship allows for a safe middle space. “It’s really important for groupings of LGBT folks to integrate into regular society,” Baker says. “Part of our mantra is that we can show the rest of the world that we don’t have to go on a charter, that we can go on a regular line and still co-exist side by side.”
Kim Gustavsson, owner of Concierge Travel, sees smaller groups as an opportunity to build community. “Let’s say you have newly come out and you’re booking one of the large ship cruises, and you leave your cabin, go upstairs to the party, and there are 1,500 to 2,000 gay men and women dancing. What if you’ve never even been out? It can be intimidating.” Concierge’s small cruise packages allow travelers to enjoy smaller-scale parties, have dinner with familiar faces, and form a small town, of sorts, at sea.
But that doesn’t mean that smaller groups are compromising when it comes to entertainment value. If the ship is leaving out of Houston, you can bet on some memorable performances. Gayribbean is now booking what promises to be a frightfully fabulous Halloween bash at sea, and Aquafest boasts a proud roster of entertainers that includes the legendary drag queens Bianca Del Rio and Miss Conception.
Many agencies, cruise lines, and destinations are working to build more integrated and specific options for different kinds of LGBT travelers. “We’re gearing Galveston to a variety of demographics,” says Leah Cast, public relations manager at the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are a lot of gay and lesbian couples who come down to enjoy a romantic getaway, see the opera house, and visit the art galleries. For the younger singles demographic, we have a rising downtown culture.” Baker agrees. “It’s not just about partying and drinking piña coladas and going to the beach. We want to enrich people and have smaller get-togethers for women, senior citizens, and for people who might not necessarily be coming to a late-night dance party.”
Charlie Rounds, board chairman of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association Foundation, believes that with more positive legislation to support them, LGBT travelers will make travel choices that relate to their expanded lifestyles. “We are going on honeymoons now because we are getting married,” he says. “Hawaii is seeing an uptick in LGBT travel because it is a traditional honeymoon destination. And they have marriage equality, so you can get married there as well. More of us are having children. We’re not traveling as two adult men or two adult lesbians, but rather as parents with kids, so we need to go to destinations that are going to be good for the kids.”
If you feel like you’ve taken one too many gay cruises, don’t. LGBT cruise lines value you more than you think. “We have over a 50 percent repetition rate,” Baker says. “[Repeat customers are valuable] to our business, and the reason for our success,” Henshaw says. For seasoned seafaring and airborne vets, it’s time to get buck-wild with your destinations. “Repeat guests keep these exotic trips afloat,” Baker says. “They want to learn more, see the world, and experience other cultures. They want to do it in that group environment and let their hair down.” Gustavsson says that Concierge has broadened its horizons to cater to its more seasoned repeat customers. “As we get more accepted and the laws are changing, and some of us are adding a few years, we are more interested in quality over quantity.”
So where is the hottest ticket for an LGBT tourist? Depends on who you ask. According to Baker, it’s Southeast Asia, where countries like Cambodia feature bourgeoning scenes and tolerant governments. Aquafest offers China, Beijing, and Shanghai cruises in 2015. For Houstonians with a few days off, Rounds recommends a trip to South America—namely Argentina and Columbia, with their nonstop flights and safe environments. Gustavsson is preparing for tours to Cuba and Africa in upcoming seasons. But as with any trip, Rounds says “these destinations still have to be safe for us as gay people.”
Whether you are taking a solo flight or a group trip, Gustavsson recommends traveler’s insurance to remove the financial risk of a cancellation. “There’s a mentality of the young that’s like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me!’ Then a parent gets sick, you lose your trip, and you can’t get your money back.”
Baker and Gustavsson agree: book with a travel agent and book early. That way, you may get a rebate if the price improves. “A good travel agent will get the client [booked] at a lower rate if the price drops,” Baker says. “So you really don’t have anything to lose.”
With a busy port and a lively beach town just an hour away, Houstonians can easily take advantage of the upcoming seafaring seasons. The assortment of giant charter cruises, smaller-scale groups, exotic destinations, and new community niches make this the season to see the world and be yourself.
David Goldberg also writes about Game of Thrones in this issue of OutSmart.
• 3-Star Visas
• Aquafest Cruises
• Brand g Vacations
• Concierge Travel
• Denver Pridefest
• Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau
• Gayribbean Cruises
• Gay Key West
• World Pride