Of the several thousand New Yorkers expected to attend the Gay & Lesbian World Travel Expo at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Thursday, some will be scoping out their next big vacation, while others will be lining up their first Caribbean cruise, trip up the Nile, or commitment package to Hawaii, complete with leis. There’s something for everyone–dungeon tours, antique-hunting expeditions, and sweaty sorties for hiking dykes. Everyone has a niche, except the transgendered community; no one’s courting them. Yet.
But queer travel has certainly become big business. The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association estimates that gay people spend $30 billion a year on tourism. Community Marketing, Inc., producers of the Travel Expo, claim that an overwhelming 93 percent of gay men they surveyed (based on people who attend such events and direct-mail queries) seek “gay tours, destinations, and suppliers.” And for good reason: Having sex behind closed doors isn’t a problem for most homosexuals. “Holding hands and watching the sunset is a problem,” according to Charles Rounds, president of RSVP, the oldest and largest gay tour packager. “I wouldn’t want to be one of 30 fags in the dining room among 3000 heterosexuals,” noted Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of Out & About, a gay travel newsletter.
No wonder queer cruises and tours are popping up like pecs in Chelsea. One calendar lists more than 150 options between now and next August, and that’s not counting companies that market to “women” rather than lesbians. Lured by homo dollars, American Airlines, National Car Rental, Carnival Cruise Line, “Gay Friendly Québec,” and others are courting the queer consumer. Even in the face of attacks from the right, American Airlines maintains a “RAAinbow Team” of sales reps to market to the gay community.
Until the Cayman Islands refused docking privileges last February to a gay male cruise sponsored by Atlantis Events of Los Angeles, the industry ran like a nuclear submarine, gliding beneath the radar of the American public. It developed quietly at first, with RSVP Travel chartering ships as far back as 1986. Now there are about 20 companies booking cruises or land packages, often taking over a ship or an entire resort for a week.
Lesbian trips quickly differentiate themselves from their gay male counterparts. Theme nights on cruises sum it up. Favorite lesbian themes include the Fabulous Fifties and Klon-Dykes, while gay men have toga parties, leather nights, underwear bashes, and dog-tag tea dances. Lesbians are entertained by the same performers who populate the “wimmin’s music festivals”: Olivia recording artists like Cris Williamson and Tret Fure, along with comics Marga Gomez and Sara Cytron. Except for top-of-the-line performers, these artists can choose between a modest fee or a free trip with a companion. Male-cruise bookers pay much better, drawing mainstream performers like Sister Sledge, Harvey Fierstein, Lanie Kazan, and the one and only Joan Rivers.
As a rule, lesbians behave very differently from gay men on their vacations. For one thing, the major topic of conversation at the dining table on male cruises is not likely to be sperm donations. But lesbians can be silly, too–as in running around the dining room with napkins on their heads. Still, dykes tend to be activity oriented. The women at the Club Med in Sonora in October 1996 thought nothing of playing a golf tournament, softball, or volleyball, and even mountain biking in the hundred-degree heat. Afterward, the hungry athletes charged the buffet with a gusto that made the running of the bulls in Pamplona look like an amateur event.
The centerpiece of a lesbian cruise is often the “commitment ceremony.” This has more in common with an ordinary mixer than with a solemn exchange of vows. On one Olivia Cruises & Resorts excursion, about 200 to 400 women crowded into one of the larger lounges to share where they’re from, how long they’ve been together, and who they are. A few ecumenical words about relationships from Olivia president Judy Dlugacz were followed by a toast, after which everyone snapped souvenir photos, and a band played romantic tunes.
Gay male excursions, in contrast, are party circuits afloat. Even many of the gay male couples expect a hot time on board, and though sex isn’t openly promoted by the tour operators, it’s clearly in the sea air. Word quickly spreads of different types of sexual activity available on various decks of the ship late at night. “I will not deny it,” says Charles Rounds of RSVP. “But just so you know, we have somebody at night, that that’s his job, the whole night, from midnight until 6 a.m., to patrol the open decks to keep that activity from going on. When we charter a ship, we agree that there cannot be public sex, so we need to enforce that.”
Of course, as Rounds notes, straight people also have deck-sex on their cruises, “and probably lesbians too, let’s be democratic.” But Eric Rofes, author of Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures, says, “It was always in part about having sex, meeting men, affirming your looks, affirming your sexual taste. That was a big part of the cruise.”
On RSVP trips, voyagers’ sexual availability is broadcast via green (unattached or open to other relationships), red (monogamous), or yellow (anything goes) wristbands. One magazine editor recalls that on an RSVP cruise to Mexico, some men resented the color coding. “Some wound up turning their red wristbands around because no one would talk to them.” Though lesbians tend to be monogamous, putting hundreds together for a week increases the likelihood of new romances exponentially. One woman complains that her partner later swam off with a snorkeling buddy she met on the ship. Would she go on another cruise? “Never!”
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.”
Though many travelers think they get what they pay for, this is not always the case. It is true that tour operators have office overhead and must advertise. And they provide their own staff, as many as 35 on an Olivia cruise, plus entertainment. “We pamper our guests,” says Dlugacz. But one travel agent, who asked not to be identified, says that some of the ships chartered to gay tours are “not top of the line. In fact, it would be difficult to get too much below this.”
Both Dlugacz and Rounds admit that the Seabreeze and the Oceanbreeze are older ships. “I take the entire universe of ships that are available,” Dlugacz notes. “I look for where we want to go and how many people I can put on a ship, and then I go for the very best I can get.” Rounds stresses the “value” of his cruises and the “respect” gays get on board from the staff, but admits, “These are older ships. If homosexuals want glitzy and bright, why aren’t they living out in suburban New Jersey in brand-spanking-new homes. Why do they live in the East Village?”
Excessive surcharges are probably legal, particularly on trips that accept both men and women. However, it is questionable, to say the least, to charge people more for being in a group of men or women. “Of course charging different amounts violates the ‘equal’ principle,” says Ruthann Robson, author of several books about gay men, lesbians, and the law. “An analogy might be when women are charged more for haircuts or dry cleaning simply because they’re women. It’s a harder case if it’s ‘all women’ versus ‘women and men.’ The cruises would need to be identical, so that gender was the only distinction. If the cruise lines have any solid legal advice, I bet the cruises have trivial differences that get tagged with the price differential.”
Most of the male-oriented tours include women, but RSVP trips, for example, are about 90 percent male. However, women’s excursions, including Olivia and Robin Tyler International Tours for Women, rarely include male clients. According to Robson, “If the ‘accommodation’ is being limited on the basis of sex, then it’s arguably sex discrimination.” Since both land and sea excursions have male staff members, it would be hard for tour operators to argue, even to the women’s community, that they are preserving a “woman-only” space. (Olivia refers male travel inquiries to RSVP.) “Legally, we can’t stop anyone from traveling with us unless they are coming with us for the purpose of disrupting,” Dlugacz says. “Will I stop someone from going? Not if they really want to go.”
Of course, if queers could do all the things straight people do on an ordinary cruise, without being accused of frightening the stewards, then there might be no reason for these tours to exist. But as long as ordinary affection between people of the same sex is seen as an affront to decency–if not a crime–homosexuals will pay a premium for the
The Gay Tax
Club Med charges $675 for nonmembers (that includes travel insurance) for any room at its Sonora Resort in Mexico. With airfare from New York, Club Med will bill you $999. Olivia charges $1295 or $1395 (ocean view) plus $50.30 airport tax for the same rooms, though Olivia includes a short flight from Phoenix (approximately a $200 value). In short, Olivia charges a $500 surcharge for the women’s week.
RSVP divides the same rooms at the Sonora resort into four categories, ranging from $699 to $999, to create ”value,” according to Charles Rounds of RSVP. No flights are included. A round-trip flight from New York would add on $551 for a total (with the most expensive room) of $1550—that is, $500 more than Club Med charges with airfare.
Olivia charges $895 to $2695 for a voyage on the Oceanbreeze to the Southern Caribbean. The same trip costs only $549 to $849 other weeks. In other words, the most expensive room is over $1800 more on an Olivia cruise.
On a recent cruise to Alaska on the Norwegian Dynasty, Olivia charged a top price of $2895; RSVP’s top price was $2495. ”The price that Judy [Dlugacz] got on that cruise I could have retired,” Rounds complained. His own prices have come down over the last decade since he can negotiate better deals with cruise lines, and there’s more competition among gay male tour packagers. ”My pricing is really, really carefully done,” Dlugacz responds, ”so that we are able to do the promotion we need to do, have the staff and service, and be able to grow.”
With the average price on an Olivia cruise averaging $500 to $1000 over the standard fare, lesbian cruises may be charging almost a million dollars extra per ship, not even counting the discount the organizers receive. When the surcharges are multiplied over the more than 150 queer tours each year, the gay tax winds up taking tens of millions of dollars out of the pockets of queer consumers. —K.J.