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Queer Skies

The travel industry looks for market share among voyagers who are out and about

By Bruce Mirkin

Gays and lesbians may be some distance from achieving full equality in this country, but there's no question that the group has evolved by leaps and bounds as a market niche. One of the clearest signs is the growing boom in gay travel services. Queer-oriented resorts, cruises and more have been around for years, of course, but they used to be the province of small, specialty companies. Now the big boys of the travel industry are going after gay dollars.

Jim Boin, owner of Yankee Clipper Travel in San Jose and vice president of the International Gay Travel Association, says gay and lesbian travel opportunities have increased dramatically in recent years. There are some 1,200 members of the IGTA today, up from just 300 in the late '80s.

Yes indeed, girlfriend, we have arrived. All-homo holidays in the Caribbean, London, ski resorts or just about anywhere you can name are within your grasp, provided you have the disposable income.

MetroActive Goes Trippin' . . .

Don't Miss Saigon: Playing the Pacific Rim by bike requires stamina and good wheels.

Cruising Oblivion: Life aboard a cruise ship is a lesson in scheduling and snoozing.

On the Road: Traveling doesn't have to mean planes and trains. Automobiles and thumbs can get you pretty far.

Southern Sunshine: Paradise found on Mexico's tropical beaches.

Romancing the Romanesque: Scouring France in search Crusader ruins.

An Idiot's Guide to the Universe: How to keep Europeans from thinking you're completely hopeless.

Queer Across the World: Transcending homophobia in search of another buck.

Packing Heat: Paranoid or not, it's always a good idea to keep an eye out for danger when you travel.

Virtual World: Armchair travelers can feed their wanderlust on the web.

Not everyone finds this prospect appealing, of course. As a Bay Area gay journalist, I go days without significant contact with heterosexuals, so spending a week on a cruise ship surrounded by fellow queers doesn't exactly rate as special. In fact, sometimes getting out among the hets can be refreshing.

But there are destinations, like Palm Springs, where a gay-oriented tour or resort may be the only way to go. Straight Palm Springs, the town that elected Sonny Bono mayor before sending him (shudder) to Congress, is heavily populated by retired ex-Brentwoodites driving Lincoln Town Cars and wearing designer tennis outfits, even though they almost never play tennis. Right alongside, in the neighboring community of Cathedral City, is a thriving gay community with a multitude of quite appealing gay resorts, restaurants, and nightspots. It's like a parallel universe, and I sure as hell know which one I'd rather visit.

Sometimes, though, it's the gay side of the universe that makes me cringe, especially the travel promoters who treat gay men as though we only think with our crotches. Take the 1995 brochure from Atlantis, an outfit that books all-gay vacation packages at various Club Med locations: it's full of gorgeous young men with perfect bodies, usually clad in skimpy Speedos. No one is over 30, no one has a receding hairline or love handles, and virtually everyone is white. Give me a break.

Fortunately, the trend is away from that sort of hormone-driven promotion. RSVP, the gay cruise line that has now branched out into resort vacations, has mercifully dropped the buffed-boys-in-Speedos emphasis from its new brochures.

But the real news, explains travel agent Brad Hudson of Travel Zone in San Francisco, is the move by mainstream vendors into the gay travel market with "knockout products targeting the gay community: Virgin Vacations taking their London packages and substituting passes to Heaven for a city tour or something like that--giving them a gay identity and marketing them as gay products. Within the past year everybody's getting on the bandwagon."

A glance at Virgin's literature suggests the company has pretty skillfully plugged gay-oriented add-ons into otherwise conventional tour packages, but how good a deal this is remains an open question. A London/Paris vacation, including three days in each city with a high-speed train link via the Channel tunnel, costs $985 (tourist class) with a San Francisco departure on the "straight" package. The gay version, seemingly identical except for an unspecified number of passes to gay clubs, "special discounts at gay-friendly London restaurants," and a copy of a London gay travel guide, goes for $1,119.

The major gay travel vendors generate some gripes as well, especially around price. "The gay travel products tend to be more expensive for comparable things," Hudson notes. And unfortunately you can't always compare prices just by looking at brochures. Major non-gay cruise lines like Carnival discount heavily from their published fares, often as much as 50 percent; what's in the brochure is what you're going to pay with RSVP.

The increased cost doesn't necessarily amount to price gouging in the form of what could be considered a gay travel tax. RSVP, for example, charters the ship from Carnival, which raises the cost. It also books separate gay-focused entertainment for the cruise so you won't be subjected to, well, the performers you normally get on a cruise. All things considered, it's not a bad deal.

"Where else can you take a week off and step into a world where you're the majority instead of the minority?" asks Jim Boin of Yankee Clipper Travel in San Jose.

It's a good idea to ask lots of questions and make sure you understand all such policies before you book. Of course, taking your time and getting lots of information is always a good policy before booking any expensive vacation. A knowledgeable gay travel agent is a good place to start, but even he or she can't be expected to tell you everything: some small, popular gay inns won't pay commissions, so travel agents quite understandably aren't in a hurry to send you there.

Locally, plenty of travel agents advertise in the gay press, but if you need to locate one, the International Gay Travel Association at 800/448-8550 will gladly provide a list of members.

Another information source worth checking out is Out and About, a gay and lesbian travel newsletter published 10 times a year. Subscriptions are $49 per year. Write to 542 Chapel, New Haven, CT 06511.

There's also a burgeoning amount of information available online. America Online, for example, has a gay travel forum (keyword "GLCF Travel") with an array of message boards and a weekly conference. Similar forums are popping up in lots of places.

So take your time and definitely shop around. Me, I'm going to spend my vacation gawking at the hets in Bakersfield.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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