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Gay and lesbian holiday­makers are usually on the same basic mission as their straight friends

Gay and lesbian holiday­makers are usually on the same basic mission as their straight friends: We all want to let our hair down by doing something we enjoy on our time off from work.

Some of us are looking for a hedonistic week of non-stop clubbing, but others want to chill out in boutique hotels, have a holiday romance, eat fabulous meals, get outdoors, explore exotic locations, go sunbathing or shop until we drop.

The difference is that if you are gay or lesbian, you have to think carefully about your destination. Holiday time is precious, so you don’t want to invest your hard-earned time and money in a destination, hotel or even an airline that doesn’t make you feel welcome. You want to be able to hang out with your partner without encountering abuse from locals. If you’re gay or lesbian, you aren’t looking for special treatment — you just want to find a place where you can expect the same respect given to all customers.

There are countries where homosexuality is illegal, including several Caribbean, Middle-Eastern and African countries, but there are also plenty of places that actively welcome gay travellers. Classic gay holiday spots include Miami and Key West, San Francisco, Sydney, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rio and the Greek islands, but hipper destinations for gay fun now include Rome, Madrid, Berlin and even Zurich.

Gay travellers are an adventurous lot. It’s well-documented that they were the key demographic to keep flying when straight travellers stayed at home after 9-11.

And it’s a market that could prove invaluable to the travel industry during the current economic crisis.

“Despite rising gas prices and the downturn in the economy, gay travellers are more likely than straights to continue with their vacation plans,” says gay tourism expert Jeff Guarancino, the vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, a city that’s shooting up the gay travel charts thanks to its dynamic calendar of gay events and the 72 rainbow street signs signalling its “gaybourhood.”

Travel companies would do well to court gay travellers right now: They travel frequently, are brand-loyal and spend nearly double what their heterosexual counterparts spend on holiday.

The gay and lesbian community in the USA alone spends a staggering $75 billion US per year on travel, explains John Tanzella, executive director of the IGLTA, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (www.iglta.org), the umbrella group for the most gay-friendly travel companies in the world.

“Gays love travel deals,” says Guarancino. “And because they largely don’t have children at home, they can more easily take advantage of last-minute, off-season and high-season offers. Gay travellers are savvy, so those travel companies, hotels and destinations that have been sincerely committed to gay and lesbian tourism will fare much better than those who will see an opportunity to go after the ‘pink dollar’ opportunistically.”

It makes sense for travel industry players including hotels, tourist boards and airlines are keen to court the gay traveller. Hilton, Accor hotels, American Airlines (www.aa.com/rainbow), and British Airways have been certified by the IGLTA scheme. They train their staff to be gay traveller-friendly, offer same-sex partnership benefits and market their products in gay magazines.

Then of course there are plenty of tour operators specializing in travel for gay and lesbians, offering everything from cultural expeditions to hedonistic party cruises. “Adventure travel as well as eco- and volun-tourism are quite popular now,” says Tanzella. “Cruises continue to be popular as do Pride events and other GLBT events such as film festivals.”

“Gay cruises are hot,” adds Guarancino, pointing to the success of the fifth anniversary of Rosie O’Donnell’s celebrity gay family cruises run by her GL travel company, R Family Vacations (www.rfamilyvacations.com).

There are endless reasons to treat yourself to a trip — from gay pride parades and gay and lesbian film festivals, to international gay sporting events.

And of course as more and more countries have opened themselves up to same-sex civil partnerships, the gay honeymoon and wedding markets have also boomed.

Top gay travel destinations for 2009
These once- expensive, desired destinations are suddenly much more affordable, says Jeff Guarancino gay tourism expert and vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation:
• Costa Rica
• Mexico
• Manchester
• Australia
• Tel Aviv

No-go zones

Gay travellers should be aware that homosexuality is illegal in Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Morocco, Tunisia, Gambia, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, Lebanon, Oman, UAE (Dubai), Syria, India, Maldives and Malaysia.

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