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July 2009 Email this to a friend
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The next big thing

By Matthew Link

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'Green-washing' is a term you hear kicked around a lot nowadays to describe companies so eager to attract environmentally minded travelers that they put on a flimsy eco-friendly facade.
In the gay travel world, a similar practice is referred to as 'gay-washing.' With so many companies, brands, and destinations positioning themselves as welcoming of gays, it's not always obvious which are really gay-friendly and which are simply trying to cash in on the coveted gay travel dollar.
'This phenomenon of tourism boards putting out marketing pieces directly to gay travelers is a relatively new thing, and I often find it very amusing more than anything,' says Jonathan Klein, owner of the long-established gay travel agency Now Voyager in San Francisco. 'Politically it's a wonderful thing, but if gay travelers are moved by it, they might end up being disappointed because the marketing gave the impression a destination is some sort of Key West when it's not.'
It's one thing for places like San Francisco, San Diego, or Miami (which all have dedicated gay tourism campaigns) to go after the gay market. But a number of US cities in traditionally conservative regions have also begun courting gay travelers: Dallas, Phoenix, Atlanta, even Milwaukee and Cleveland. Granted, any sizeable city will have something of interest to gay travelers, but just how much is enough to make it a gay destination?
'Part of our mission is to help travel and tourism businesses market themselves to the GLBT community,' explains John Tanzella, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. 'Not every place has a Castro or a Hillcrest or a Chelsea, but that doesn't mean there aren't things for gay and lesbian travelers to do there. If a place has done their homework, they can present themselves with a targeted GLBT marketing campaign to point out what is there.'
Tanzella says that some destinations will hold more appeal to foreign visitors.
'For a non-American traveler,' he points out, 'there might be some real appeal in going to a liberal, gay-friendly town like Bloomington, Indiana.'
On the flip side of the equation, a number of places that have long cashed in on the gay dollar don't do a thing to reach out to gay travelers, and in some cases refuse to. Examples include Hawaii, the Czech Republic, and Puerto Vallarta, whose tourism boards don't make an effort to release funds for gay advertising or marketing, despite all of these places ranking high in gay travel surveys. Regardless of any advertising, gays continue to flock to these hot spots.
And the biggest head-scratcher of all is the handful of out-of-the-blue destinations that are marketing themselves as gay getaways. In some cases, they are so obscure you may have to dig out an atlas to figure out where they are.
We decided to dissect a cross- section of these new kids on the block for their gay-worthiness. Just how much appeal do they have for gay travelers?

Atlantic City, New Jersey
Gay atmosphere: 2 out of 10

Claims: The tourism board insists Atlantic City is 'always turned on,' making it the 'the ideal gay travel destination.' Brochures emphasize its gay bars and clubs and gay-friendly hotels.
Reality: New Jersey is ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to civil unions, which were enacted here in 2004. With its flashy casinos and anything-goes vibe, Atlantic City is a natural spot for a same-sex Vegas-style ceremony. But with just one gay bar and one gay-owned hotel (the chic, retro and predominately straight Chelsea), as well as busloads of blue-haired ladies crowding the slot machines, you'd be better off checking out the happening gay enclave of Asbury Park, just up the coast. With a Speedo- filled beach, a full-fledged gay disco, and the pumping Empress Hotel hosting explosive pool parties, Asbury Park is becoming the new gay seaside spot on the East Coast.

Bisbee, Arizona
Gay atmosphere: 7 out of 10

Claims: Bisbee's visitor center describes this small Old West town as an 'attractive artist colony and retirement community, known for its relaxed quality of life.' Travelers come to savor its 'uncommon blend of creativity, friendliness, style, romance, and adventure.'
Reality: This picturesque village in southeastern Arizona, close to the Mexican border, is indeed a bona fide gay and lesbian magnet, attracting a fair share artists, nature- lovers, and retirees. A boisterous gay pride event in June takes over the town with street parties, drag shows, poolside barbecues, plays, dances, concerts, and a 'lingerie pub crawl.' The large gay population melds effortlessly with the old timers, and Bisbee has even hosted panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Gay-owned restaurants dot the historic downtown, and six miles away is David's Oasis Camping Resort, a 120-acre gay ranch where you can frolic naked in the desert. Tucson, to the north, is also becoming known as a gay city, but tiny Bisbee's overall funky vibe easily overtakes it.

Bloomington, Indiana
Gay atmosphere: 8 out of 10

Claims: The local convention and visitors bureau brags that this college town of about 75,000 people is 'one of the most progressive cities in the Midwest, both socially and politically.' And 'while Bloomington obviously has an appeal to gays and lesbians looking for a place to live, its potential as a vacation destination for the discerning traveler is just beginning to attract attention.'
Reality: In 2000, the Human Rights Campaign found that Bloomington had the fifth highest percentage of gay-couple households in the country, right behind Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Moreover, it's famous as the home of the Kinsey Institute, founded by the renowned bisexual researcher who gave us the 10 percent gay rule. The town is home to the state's first gay radio show, covers sexual orientation in its human rights ordinance, and has three gays bars filled with fresh-faced college boys. Its historic theaters are packed during a gay film festival every January, and Indiana University draws thousands every year to the annual Miss Gay IU drag pageant. So, it's agreed, Bloomington's potential as a gay destination is truly just beginning.

Netherlands Antilles
Gay atmosphere: 6 out of 10

Claims: 'We are committed to welcoming all visitors to the island,' insists the Curacao Tourist Board, which has started a push to bring gays to the Caribbean hideaway. It encourages 'gay and lesbian travelers to visit the island and experience its 'live and let live' atmosphere for themselves.'
Reality: This arid island, off the northern coast of Venezuela, is better known for its casinos and duty-free shopping, but it was the first place in the Caribbean to heartily market itself to gay travelers. Officially part of the Netherlands, same-sex marriage is legal here, as are nude beaches, and there are a number of hotels that are proud members of the International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association. The isle's gay watering hole is the Lyric's Gay Cafe, located in the candy-colored colonial capital city of Willemstad. There's also the 'straight-friendly' DJ dance party called Madame Jeanette, held at a club called Central Park every second Saturday of the month. The tourism board's dedicated gay web site, Gaycuracao.com, even has a bulletin board to facilitate meeting up with other gay tourists and locals. The isle may not have a huge gay scene, but easy-going, gay-welcoming smiles are found everywhere.

Florianopolis, Brazil
Gay atmosphere: 9 out of 10

Claims: The tourism board says this city on an island in southeastern Brazil is 'an all-time favorite holiday destination for Brazilian and South American LGBT' and boasts a 'laid- back and safe atmosphere.'
Reality: For a city of about 400,000, Florianopolis packs a wallop. Its downtown is home to a dozen gay bars (in addition to a classic gay beach bar), two gay saunas, a pumping gay pride week in May, and the best Carnival in southern Brazil, complete with an old tradition of cross-dressing men called bloco dos sujos. It is estimated that 50,000 people show up for the drag beauty contest. But the best bronzed eye-candy is at the main gay beach Praia Mole, where the first Brazilian-operated gay cruise moored in 2008. (You'll also find gays floating around the clothing-optional Praia da Galheta next door.) Floripa, as the locals call the city, has become a getaway for Sao Paulo's sizeable gay population, and there's an influx of gay visitors from Argentine as well. No wonder Florianopolis is now considered a major gay destination in Brazil, along with Rio and Sao Paulo.

Noosa, Australia
Gay atmosphere: 7 out of 10

Claims: The state tourism board asserts there is 'plenty to lure gay and lesbian travelers to Queensland,' and that the 40,000-person town of Noosa 'has become the recovery spot after the rigors of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.'
Reality: A surfing mecca since the '60s, Noosa is a stylish, mellow beach retreat, where yuppies dine in gourmet cafes while tanned guys haul their boards to the ocean. According to the local government, Noosa's gay and lesbian presence is 22 percent larger than the national average, leading Mayor Bob Abbot to defend the town's reputation by saying, 'Noosa is not the gay capital of Australia.' However, Noosa and adjoining Peregian Beach are home to several upscale gay clothing-optional B&Bs. The gorgeous Noosa National Park has a nude beach surrounded by wilderness called Alexandria Bay where gays go to let it all hang out and watch the muscled surfers. And yes, reservations are mandatory for early February after Sydney Mardi Gras, when city gays invade Noosa for a 'recovery' vacation.

Reunion Island,
Indian Ocean
Gay atmosphere: 5 out of 10

Claims: This tiny spec of an island proudly calls itself 'rainbow island' in its brochures aimed at the gay community. 'Different from other, more traditional gay-friendly destinations,' the tourism board literature explains, 'this beautiful island promises you a relaxing break, and the unforgettable, genuine hospitality of the locals.'
Reality: With a population made up of a blend of Creole, African, Asian, and European heritages and Catholic, Hindu, and Muslim faiths, the French territory of Reunion has learned to value diversity. Framed by sugarcane fields and jagged volcanoes, the surprisingly cosmopolitan main town of Saint-Denis has two full- time gay bars, and special gay events pop up at clubs around the island. The southern coast has a chic, gay-owned B&B, and sun worshippers flock to the white sands of the west coast's tranquil nude beach, La Souris Chaude (which means the 'Hot Mouse'). Overall, laissez-faire attitudes towards sexuality dominate. Happy gays in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Who knew?

Author Profile:  Matthew Link

Matthew Link has written for numerous magazines and has appeared on many television and radio shows. His documentaries have aired on PBS stations and in international film festivals.

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