Gay and Lesbian Tourism
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Gay and lesbian people comprise about 6% of the population and are identified as a market in their own right. This article outlines the current value of gay tourism, which offers significant new marketing opportunities for many companies. It discusses the travel preferences of this community and gives reasons why certain destinations are more popular than others. Valuable pointers for targeting this market are provided along with examples of how some operators are offering a specialist product or service to meet growing demand.
It is a well-known fact that gay and lesbian people have higher average annual household earnings than heterosexual couples and therefore tend to have far higher disposable incomes . Often they don’t have children and therefore have fewer restrictions on their ability to travel throughout the year, and at short notice. As a result they tend to travel more and spend more when travelling.
Comprising around 6% of the population , they represent a substantial market segment that, in volume and value terms, is only just being appreciated. Traditionally, travel companies have been indifferent or even hostile to the idea of treating gay people as a separate consumer group with different purchase preferences and behaviour. A sea-change is taking place in this approach, with mainstream travel providers waking up to what gay travel specialists have known all along. There are also signs of increased sophistication in the tastes of gay travellers, away from inexpensive conventional resort-based holidays to premium-priced activity holidays and special-interest tours, making the gay travel market an even more attractive commercial proposition.
This article looks at the volume and value of the gay and lesbian market in the UK and provides insights for companies and destinations to tap into this growing sector.
The increasing acceptance of homosexuality worldwide has, to some extent, revolutionised the travel industry, in that it has provided yet another market segment on which to focus for an ever-decreasing share of the leisure pound. The ‘pink pound’, as it is known in mainstream media, is a valuable commodity in a tourism industry constantly on the lookout for new, relatively untapped market potential.
History teaches us that what we refer to as gay tourism dates back much further than might be expected. The ‘Grand Tour’, for example, taken by men of nobility in the Victorian era involved not only cultural education but also, for some men, the opportunity to more freely express their sexuality in societies where homosexuality was more accepted than in the UK .
Without doubt, the concept of gay tourism remained an elite activity until the latter part of the 20th century  when gay neighbourhoods formed as a result of de-industrialisation. They became an attraction and consequently tourist destinations in their own right.
Clift et al describes such ‘gay-safe’ spaces as tourist bubbles that offered an alternative gay, and equally importantly, a safe environment in which gay and lesbian tourists could travel. Examples of such ‘gay-safe’ destinations included Greenwich Village in New York, Castro in San Francisco, Key West in Florida and Brighton, Canal Street in Manchester and Blackpool in the UK.
Only in the mid-1990s did gay and lesbian travellers appear to break away from the confines of strictly all-gay environments. Until this time gay travel had essentially remained separate from mainstream travel and exclusively gay destinations and facilities benefited from this trend. With the increasing, and for the most part, positive recognition of gay and lesbian rights on the world stage came recognition by mainstream operators of the value of what came to be known as ‘the pink pound’. The search for a ‘…’recession-proof’ market niche’  identified the gay market as a distinct possibility.
The gay and lesbian market is often depicted as one with high levels of disposable income, with favoured expenditure being leisure and travel products and services. The power of the pink pound is often purported to be high, but its power lies not just in its direct purchasing ability but also in the market which it encapsulates.
According to Mintel  ‘the gay sector [in the UK] represents a small sub-segment of the overall holiday market [with]…1.25 million overseas holidays taken by gay people in 2006, representing a market value of £658 million.’ Mintel estimates that:
- the number of trips overseas by gay and lesbian travellers will grow at an above-average rate of 28% between 2006 and 2011 to reach 1.6 million
- by 2011 the overseas gay holiday market will be worth approximately £899 million.
A recent survey  into gay and lesbian spending habits indicates that gay consumers can offer a new revenue source at a time when consumer spending is slowing. It indicates that lesbians and gay men can offer tourism suppliers significant new marketing opportunities. With their earnings of over £81 billion in 2007, the three million gay men and lesbians in the UK spent £7.1 billion alone buying goods online. Gay consumers, argues the research, ‘...offer a significant new market opportunity for companies in a number of consumer categories [including tourism] that are currently hurting because of the UK credit crunch...’
The notion of the pink pound is ‘…compromised somewhat by high proportions of costly one- or two-person and urban household lifestyles’ according to Mintel . Nonetheless the value of the ‘pink pound’ should not be underestimated. In a recent article in Travelworld News, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) said that the gay travel industry was ‘recession-proof’ .
The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA)
Founded in 1993 the IGLTA is an organisation of approximately 1,600 gay and lesbian-friendly travel professionals/businesses in 65 countries, over half of which are in the USA. Membership categories include:
- Car rental companies
- Cruise companies
- Regional and national tourist boards
- Tour operators
Membership of IGLTA is open to all travel businesses that support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) travel industry worldwide.
Research shows that although there is parity in income range between heterosexual and homosexual people, disposable income is actually higher . This may be a result of fewer family commitments in terms of children, although this is a situation which appears to be changing and indeed may, in future, offer ‘a niche within a niche’ .
Travel is considered to be a lifestyle issue for gay and lesbian travellers and it is argued that they are therefore less likely to give it up in times of recession. The nature of the historical segregation imposed upon gay and lesbian people means that their search for escapism (one of the key motivations for travel) is inherent in the need to find their identity. Travel to ‘gay-friendly’ destinations gives them the opportunity to be in the majority rather than the minority.
Just as the extrinsic motivations for travel are similar for both gay and lesbian tourists and mainstream markets, so the intrinsic motivating factors – the need for escapism, for belonging, for safety and the opportunity ‘to be oneself’ – are common across both markets. Research indicates that the need for escape and safety are considered the most important motivating factors for the gay and lesbian market taking a holiday .
In addition the high level of education experienced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) travellers ensures increased knowledge and awareness of cultural issues and the world generally, and a subsequent desire to travel to further such interest and knowledge.
For travellers with a certain level of disposable income and no family commitments, the ability to travel in off-peak periods outside of school holidays is a bonus, both for themselves and the travel organisations with whom they make their reservations. Travelling in off-peak periods is cheaper and consequently money saved could mean increased affordability and thus increased propensity to travel.
As with mainstream markets, it may be that the gay and lesbian traveller demonstrates a preference for the domestic tourism product in the event of recession, thus offering an increased market share to those organisations and destinations ready to capitalise on this trend.
Whilst no tourism products can be said to be recession-proof, there are clear indications that the gay and lesbian market segment is indeed one which may, in the short-term, be more resistant to recession.
In a study of the correlation between holiday choices and sexuality, researchers found that there were some differences between gay men and lesbians in terms of their holiday preferences, more specifically the factors influencing their choice of destination.
Where gay men were found to note aspects of culture and architecture as influencing their choice of destination, lesbians were more concerned with a destination being gay and lesbian-friendly . The need for acceptance, it appears, is stronger for gay women than it is for gay men. Avoiding situations where there would be a negative reaction to their sexuality, was identified as being more important for women than for men.
Interestingly, Mintel  identified that only a small percentage of those holidays taken by gay people were taken with gay-specific travel organisations. The question therefore arises as to whether this is because there are few gay-specific travel organisations in the UK, whether there is a lack of awareness within the gay community or quite simply whether gay and lesbian travellers prefer to carry out their own research and make their own independent arrangements, as is a current trend within the tourism industry generally.
The ability to relax on holiday for a gay and lesbian traveller means that the choice of destination and accommodation is often made on the basis of perceptions of destination/accommodation tolerance and gay-friendliness. Actual holiday activities, according to Mintel, do not vary greatly from those pursued by mainstream travellers, in that they include sightseeing, eating, drinking and sunbathing. This is supported by Pritchard et al who concur that ‘gay and lesbian consumers share much in common with tourists in the straight community.’ 
Further research carried out by Mintel into the gay and lesbian travel market indicates that:
- there are a growing number of gay and lesbian adventure-seekers who pursue cultural or adventure opportunities on holiday
- gay and lesbian travellers are more likely to take a long-haul trip than their mainstream counterparts
- with the worldwide growth in tolerance for diversity, there are more destinations attempting to attract the gay and lesbian visitor and a growing number of mainstream operators targeting the market
- in order to target the market successfully, mainstream operators must avoid patronising the market they are trying to attract.
Many gay and lesbian travellers are unaware of specialist gay travel companies, particularly in the UK. Even those who are aware, may not necessarily book a ‘gay holiday’, preferring instead to book a holiday with a mainstream operator or book independently. Raising awareness of specialist organisations will attract those for whom the use of a specialist gay firm is a prerequisite for travel, or who feel that such an organisation will offer them the product they are seeking. For mainstream operators who provide for gay and lesbian travellers there remains considerable scope for market differentiation.
In the 1990s American Airlines undertook significant promotion work with the gay community, including sponsoring Pride events, and ‘the airline is today regarded as the most popular airline among American gays and lesbians’ .
In an industry such as tourism, where products and services are increasingly similar and interchangeable, companies are seeking new ways to differentiate themselves and create distinct market profiles. American Airlines recognised that gay marketing would be a strategic differentiator for them and they are a clear example of an organisation that has remained the market leader in the gay travel niche. Offering a dedicated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) sales team and an opportunity to ‘Fly with your friends at American Airlines’ , the airline clearly anticipates and identifies the travel needs of the gay market and even produces a gay newsletter, ‘Rainbow News’ , which gives information and overviews of LGBT events.
In 1998 ‘…London became the world’s first major city actively to campaign internationally for the gay and lesbian market’ . Like American Airlines, London recognised the need to find new ways to differentiate itself and create a distinct market profile.
In line with many national tourist boards, VisitBritain now have a dedicated section on their website for ‘GayBritain’  in which they provide information on gay events and festivals, gay cities and gay history and culture.
In June 2009 IGLTA announced their new partnership with British Airways. Richard Tams, British Airways head of UK & Ireland sales said :
'The spending power of the gay and lesbian market in the UK is estimated to be around £80 billion annually. Our partnership with IGLTA reflects an increasing recognition of the importance of gay travellers. There has always been a strong affiliation with the gay community in the travel industry and this is a great opportunity to develop this relationship further.'
As Clift et al
indicate, the number of holiday destinations now welcoming the gay and lesbian visitor is considerably more than twenty years ago, when openly gay travellers were generally only to be found in recognised ‘gay-friendly’ destinations. This trend, it is argued, has come about through more effective marketing, advances in equality and human rights, and advancements in technology. The question remains – are the increases in gay and lesbian travel a result of general travel trends, for example globalisation, where the cheaper cost of international travel, increased accessibility of far-flung destinations and the proliferation of tourism organisations make travel more accessible to all, or is this niche market still as lucrative for those investors willing to take the time and effort to recognise and satisfy their needs?
Stuber  offers an analysis of market segmentation criteria and concludes that gay men and lesbians qualify as a target group and that this target group can be reached effectively. He illustrates that the gay and lesbian market fulfils the following commonly-used criteria for identifying target groups.
- Accessibility – through community platforms or specific codes, the rainbow flag for example.
- Measurability – a significant enough percentage of the population identify as being LGBT.
- Profitability – tendency towards average to high disposable income.
- Stability – increasing acceptance in western society.
The design of an appropriate communication (marketing) plan, which includes the avoidance of stereotypes and politically incorrect statements, is the key to a successful gay marketing campaign, argues Stuber. Research carried out by Mintel supports this, indicating that mainstream operators targeting the gay and lesbian market should be careful not to use gay stereotypes .
A recent UK gay market research study , the ‘Out Now 2008 Millivres Gay Market Study’, points out that in attempting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to gay tourism marketing activities, many tourism organisations are missing profit maximisation opportunities. According to Ian Johnson, CEO of Out Now :
'Operators need to look at all elements of their marketing mix – including product differentiation, when targeting gay customers. Many gays and lesbians remain worried about how welcoming travel staff will be when they are on their vacations.'
Being able to relax and to be themselves is a key issue for gay and lesbian travellers, and organisations that ensure their product is tailored to welcome LGBT travellers, through effective and appropriate service delivery, will be those that attract this lucrative target market.
The ‘gay tolerance’ of an organisation or destination has now been replaced by the ‘gay-friendly’ approach where LGBT consumers seek to be openly welcomed rather than simply tolerated. Organisations are now more ‘gay aggressive’ in their approach to targeting the market sector, perhaps reflecting increased global awareness of LGBT issues .
In terms of marketing to gay men and lesbians, Stuber offers a number of recommendations for tourism organisations.
- There is a necessity in the tourism industry to show clearly that a product is aimed at the homosexual market, perhaps through explicit approaches such as using pictures with or of same-sex couples, using expressions such as ‘gay friendly’ or incorporating a recognised gay symbol such as a rainbow.
- Adapt products to meet the specific needs of the target market, for example the provision of gay/lesbian welcome packages by tourist boards or gay and lesbian helplines staffed by agents aware of the nature of the enquiry.
- Select media or event communication platforms, whether mainstream or gay specific, that are likely to reach the desired target market sub-segment. Bear in mind that there are many gay and lesbian consumers that do not choose to live as part of the ‘gay community’ and may therefore only be reached through mainstream platforms.
- Consider sponsoring a gay event in order to raise profile.
Stuber indicates that:
'Gay/lesbian segments can either be integrated in the overall (mainstream) marketing or positioned as a separate target group. The approach to this market can be explicit, implicit or coded with symbolic language or signs. Companies planning to court the gay and lesbian segment will have to find out which combination of strategic options provides the best fit with their brand positioning and with their corporate policies. There are no general ‘best ways’ to set up a gay marketing strategy.'
It is important to recognise that gay-friendly and popular gay destinations cannot be complacent and assume that just because they are a ‘traditional’ gay destination, they always will be, ‘…mature destinations need to reinvent themselves. They need to communicate to the gay market what’s new; they need to emphasise events and catalysts to bring gay and lesbian travellers back’ .
In 2008 Outtraveller.com published a list of top up-and-coming gay destinations. They give an indication of their selection criteria :
'We chose some of these cities for their burgeoning gay goings-on or progressive LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights policies; some for their spectacular artistic and architectural wonders; some for their thrilling joie de vivre that’s getting people in travel circles talking…'
The list included:
- Santiago, Chile
- Valencia, Spain
- Marseille, France
- Dublin, Ireland
- Cardiff, Wales
Other destinations continue to be as popular with gay travellers now as they were twenty years ago, including:
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Miami, USA
- New York, USA
- Sydney, Australia
- London, UK
It is clear that sexuality is an important determinant of behaviour to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual. Choices made by gay and lesbian travellers regarding destinations, operators, methods of booking and accommodation providers are influenced by their sexuality.
From a marketing perspective mainstream advertisers to the gay community need to focus on gay media whereas gay suppliers to the gay community need to expand into mainstream channels by advertising in the Sunday travel section of a broadsheet, for example, because the word ‘gay’ will make them stand out .
The search for safety in gay destinations and the desire to be accepted are clear motivations related to sexuality, and it is argued that tourism businesses that recognise and meet such intrinsic needs will be those that benefit from this valuable niche market segment. The element of liberation provided by a ‘gay-friendly’ destination or hotel, for example, is much sought after by gay and lesbian tourists who seek opportunities to enter space where they feel comfortable with their sexuality.
This is not to say that all gay and lesbian visitors would only want to visit gay-friendly destinations. Indeed there is some concern that exclusively gay destinations isolate travellers and, to some extent force, them to spend their holiday in an environment which is restrictive in its isolation.
If the needs of the gay and lesbian tourist are to be met, further research is required into consumer behaviour within specific markets. Understanding the basic extrinsic and intrinsic motivations of this target market, avoiding stereotyping, adapting products and services to meet needs and developing targeted marketing strategies is highly likely to be successful in attracting and retaining this valuable and loyal market segment.
The increases in gay and lesbian travel are both a result of general travel trends and of increased worldwide understanding and acceptance of diversity. This niche market, however, is still lucrative for investors willing to take the time and effort to recognise and satisfy their needs.
- The Guardian. 3.6m people in Britain are gay - official. 11 December 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/dec/11/gayrights.immigrationpolicy
- Clift, S. Luongo, M. and Callister, C. (Eds) Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity and Sex. (2002). London: Continuum.
- Holcomb and Luongo, (1996) in Clift, S. Luongo, M. and Callister, C. (Eds) Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity and Sex (2002). London: Continuum.
- Gay Travel – UK. December 2006 . Mintel http://academic.mintel.com/sinatra/oxygen_academic//display/&id=173628
- Gay Plastic Fantastic – UK Gay Market Consumers Spend Big on Credit Cards – Out Now 2008. Millivres Gay.
- Travelworld News http://www.travelworldnews.com/august2009/august.pdf
- Roth, T. and Luongo, M. ‘A Place for Us 2001: Tourism Industry Opportunities in the Gay and Lesbian Market’ in Clift, S. Luongo, M. and Callister, C. (Eds) Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity and Sex (2002). London: Continuum.
- Pritchard, A., Morgan, N., Sedgley, D., Khan, E. and Jenkins, A. Sexuality and holiday choices: conversations with gay and lesbian tourists. Leisure Studies (2000).
- American Airlines http://www.aa.com Search 'Fly With Your Friends At American Airlines'.
- American Airlines http://www.aa.com Search 'Fly With Your Friends At American Airlines'. Click on LGBT News.
- VisitBritain – Gay Britain http://www.visitbritain.co.uk/things-to-see-and-do/things-to-do-for-people-like-me/gay-britain/index.aspx
- IGLTA - IGLTA Announces New Partnership with British Airways http://www.iglta.org/pressreleases.cfm?ID=67
- Stuber, M. ‘Tourism Marketing Aimed at Gay Men and Lesbians: A Business Perspective’ in Clift, S. Luongo, M. and Callister, C. (Eds) Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity and Sex (2002). London: Continuum.
- PR-inside.com. New Gay Travel Market Research Reveals Strong Market Potential of Gay Travel Market.14 November 2008. http://www.pr-inside.com
- Community Marketing, Inc. LGBT Market Research + Development Lab. July 2006. http://www.communitymarketinginc.com/media_press_3.htm
- Outtraveller.com http://www.outtraveler.com/top5lists/story.asp?did=680
Carol Southall studied tourism and languages in London in the late 1980s. She was a Tour Guide and Contracts Manager for an international coach tour operator before taking a year out to travel around the world. In the mid-1990s Carol began a teaching career, initially in further, and later in higher education, alongside which she continued to plan and escort tours to destinations including Singapore, Australia, USA, Iceland and South Africa. Carol holds a Masters Degree in Tourism Management and a recently attained a PCV licence. Research interests primarily focus on tourism quality management.