By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Other than sex, gay men on cruises work on their tans during the day and dance all night. Poolside competitions reward the guy who can stuff his Speedo with the most Ping-Pong balls. Athletic events are generally of little interest, except for those who go on biking or other sporting trips with groups like Alyson Adventures.
Since passengers on cruise ships often get to spend only three or four hours on shore, sex with the locals is more of a lure for land excursions. Tours to Paradise promises, "You'll experience all the wonders of the famous Thai smile, and be able to fulfill your secret dreams and fantasies." Hanns Ebensten, who has run his own travel agency since 1972, and who specializes in high-end tours for small groups of men, says, "Elderly gentlemen go to Thailand because the sex is very readily available. Elderly gentlemen are the delight of young Thais. In Bangkok, certainly, the groups do in the evenings go to those gay pleasure palaces where the boys parade around and all that sort of thing. We don't put it in our brochures. What they want to do after dinner is their own business." In Egypt, Ebensten steers his clientele towards the selucca (sailboat) rides on the Nile. "All these selucca men are very agreeable and like to earn a little extra money in a certain way."
The unwary traveler, particularly a gay man interested in sex with locals, may be headed for trouble. No one who had taken a cruise could recall being apprised of local laws regarding homosexuality, though Rounds says his MC advises RSVP travelers. Wes Combs, a marketing executive who took a 1997 RSVP cruise to Latin America, recalls only a "safety briefing on the ship about the dangers of street crime" in Buenos Aires. Michael Reilly, transportation manager of Atlantis Events, and Dlugacz of Olivia, told me that they don't warn people about such laws. Ebensten said, "I don't know what the laws are in many countries," adding blithely, "Even in places where the law may be strict, those gentlemen who wish to pick up a young man may still do so and nothing will happen."
Unfortunately, sodomy is illegal in many of the most popular cruise destinations, including most of the British Caribbean. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission warns that other countries--such as Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines--"maintain 'morality laws' against 'antisocial' or 'immoral' behavior" which may be used "to arrest and harass gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons." Even Club Med and other land resorts, where Americans assume they are safe because they are in protected enclaves, often open onto public beaches where nudity is illegal.
So far, few gay men have snagged a starring role in their own horrific version of Midnight Express, but organized efforts by some foreign governments are now keeping queer tours from their shores. Last December, Grand Cayman refused docking privileges to the Leeward, an Atlantis Events cruise ship. Thomas C. Jefferson, tourism minister of the Caymans, issued a statement that he couldn't "count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behavior expected of visitors to the Cayman Islands." Apparently, 10 years ago some gay men held hands and kissed in public.
Opposition to what's viewed as a gay invasion continues to grow. In March, Jamaica banned a performance by the Village People, and Anglican bishops from the English-speaking Caribbean met to oppose homosexual cruises. On April 13, the Save the Bahamas Campaign sent 300 protesters to meet the SS Seabreeze, chartered by Olivia, the largest women-only tour operator. Despite the protest, Bahamian officials issued a statement welcoming the women, and the Olivia cruise was also greeted warmly in the Virgin Islands port of St. John. But though Caribbean countries that weren't British colonies, such as the Netherlands Antilles, tend to be more gay-friendly, these homo-alerts put queer travelers in potential danger, if only because the locals are now on the lookout for them.
Ebensten blames the problems on the travelers themselves. "When a thousand gay people arrive in a port and go on shore in form-revealing shorts, they really must be told that they're not on Castro Street in San Francisco." Though Charles Rounds says, "Gays look like everyone else," it's hard to overlook 800 men in muscle T-shirts disembarking from a ship. Still, organized opposition undercuts one of the main attractions of queer travel--that it provides what Rounds calls a "safe" environment for queer voyagers.
Even when the sailing is smooth, gay travelers can expect to pay more for what they get. Marketers use euphemisms for the added cost--such as "gay premiums" or a "gay markup"--but whatever it's called, Kolber-Stuart and Community Marketing confirm, homosexuals typically pay at least 30 percent more than their straight counterparts.
Travelers are aware they are paying more and most feel the extra cost is justified. Everyone except the woman who lost her lover on board was satisfied with his or her trip. "Having an all-gay experience to me is worth any additional price," says Wes Combs. "When I vacation, I do not want to have to worry about whether or not the service personnel at hotels and other establishments will be uncomfortable with my being gay."