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LGBTQ travelers to the rescue!

Queers leading the way to tourism recovery

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Gay cruises have been on pause during the pandemic but organizers are reporting robust interest in the near future. (Photo courtesy of David Halpern)

Since the tragic events of 9/11 and the abrupt halt to travel that followed, about every 10 years, the tourism industry is knocked back on its heels. The economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 was even worse on the travel industry than 2001. And the pandemic is a once-a-century calamity exacerbated by the very things that make travel so enriching: large in-person events, meeting new friends at a hotel lounge, slaloming through a crowded bar in a far-flung city.

The travel industry rebooted before, and it will bounce back again soon. And if history is any guide, LGBTQ travelers will lead the way.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing all segments of travel in America, says, “Gays lead, and the rest follow. They’re adventurous and like new experiences. They have a penchant for travel far greater than their heterosexual counterparts. They travel more and spend more when they travel. They’re the darlings of the travel industry when it comes to spending and dollars.”

Recent history has demonstrated that LGBTQ travelers — especially those in dual-income-no-child households — are always among the first to travel after social and economic crises. Following 9/11 and again after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, destinations, hospitality companies and travel brands noticed that LGBTQ travelers were prioritizing tourism over other purchase decisions, helping fill airplanes, hotels and, restaurants and animating destinations. So, they began to market to this segment in earnest.

Smart travel marketers will note that this is happening again now. We see — anecdotally and with the support of research by Community Marketing, Inc., Harris Interactive and IGLTA — that this segment travels in higher proportions and intends to book and execute travel in greater proportions than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.

Queer travelers tend to have more disposable income and time to spend it, helping fill destinations and hotels, especially during the quieter periods when kids are in school. Being among the first to travel safely, this resilient segment grants permission to others that they can return to travel safely. The LGBTQ segment has always been disproportionately present in online platforms, which provide a safer way to meet and interact with others in an otherwise potentially anti-LGBTQ world.

They also help achieve travel marketers’ goals by experiencing more, creating social media content and generating buzz.

The segment displays intense loyalty to brands that welcome and include them. There are also surprising halo effects: By signaling welcome to this group, marketers send a sign of inclusiveness to other overlooked and marginalized segments, like Black and LatinX travelers, and the family and friends of queer people are also positively motivated by outreach to LGBTQ people. Finally, these messages resonate strongly with millennial and Gen Z audiences who plan their travel — as well as plot their careers — to destinations and at hospitality brands whose missions align with their more inclusive values.

The segment has also demonstrated a strong affinity for cruises of all sorts, including all-gay or all-lesbian cruises, LGBTQ groups on mainstream cruises, and simply joining mainstream cruises as a same-sex couple or in small friend groups. While cruise vacations are still on a pandemic-induced pause in the U.S., cruise companies — including Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Uniworld and the brand-new Virgin Voyages — have all firmly established LGBTQ travelers as a core segment.

“National Travel and Tourism Week takes on special significance this year as we look ahead to recovery following the most challenging year this industry has experienced,” says Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association. “Across the country, we are recognizing travel’s value, and the long-standing support of the LGBTQ community will help accelerate our rebound. I know that for Carnival, we pride ourselves on an inclusive atmosphere where every guest is appreciated, and we look forward to welcoming them back as soon as possible.”

One reason queer travelers are uniquely suited to help power the return of travel during this crisis has to do with their decades of experience living under the ever-looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, during which they learned the importance of risk mitigation for the good of all. Wearing masks to protect yourself and others resonates with a community that understands the importance of condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

According to Randle Roper, co-founder and CEO of VACAYA Full-Ship and Full-Resort LGBT+Vacations, “[Our] guests showed incredible resilience by traveling safely during the pandemic, and they proved they could adapt to live with health protocols that would keep each other and their loved ones back home safe.”

Travel safety is organically entwined with the LGBTQ community’s DNA. In 70+ countries, many popular with LGBTQ travelers, homosexuality is criminalized. That includes 11 countries in which death is the punishment meted out for those convicted of homosexuality and other “crimes” of sexual and gender non-conformity.

While travelers would be spared the harsh treatments locals may suffer, they nonetheless have a great deal to consider when traveling. Same-sex couples still receive awkward and uncomfortable service when checking into hotels with a single bed on the reservation or even simply existing in places where everyone’s assumed to be heterosexual. When a lesbian boards a plane with her legally married wife and their legally adopted children, they could land in a destination where their marriage license is void and their legal guardianship of their kids is in question. Trans and non-binary travelers, especially those oF color, may encounter challenges including lack of safe bathroom access, awkward encounters at TSA security and even outright hostility and worse in any public setting. In the face of all this, queer people still explore and have a lot to teach the rest of the world about how to travel with intent and joy while
maintaining their own safety and that of the community around them.

LGBTQ travelers can also show the world how best to support the tourism and hospitality industries in ways that also strengthen their own communities. “LGBTQ consumers have the power to make change and support LGBTQ-friendly companies and destinations by choosing to spend their travel dollars with those that support our community,” says Jeff Guaracino, co-author of the “Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality.” “LGBTQ-owned hotels, bed and breakfasts, tour companies, bars and restaurants, festivals and destinations have been especially hard hit by COVID, and as a community, we can support LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses and their employees by spending our travel dollars with them first.”

LGBTQ tour companies and travel agents have a direct connection to queer travelers and report strong interest in and bookings of travel. According to Robert Sharp, co-founder and CEO of Out Adventures, “After [releasing] our entire tour schedule through the end of 2022, we saw our largest month of sales in our 12-year history.”

Kelli Carpenter, co-founder of R Family Vacations, adds, “Our highest sales have come from our river cruise products and international tour business, showing that travelers are ready to explore the world again.”

VACAYA’s Roper has seen extremely robust sales over the past several months — including selling out their Antarctica Cruise. “With a starting price of around $25,000 per room, that was our best sign yet that our community members are ready to break free from their cages and return to travel,” he says.

Robert Geller, founder of FabStayz, agrees: “Pent-up demand is visible, palpable and quantifiable.”

 

NYC-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, instructor at NYU and the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center, and an LGBTQ tourism marketing consultant.

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Saugatuck/Douglas is the art coast of Michigan

Beaches and peaches abound in this LGBTQ-friendly escape

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The Saugatuck Dunes State Park offers breathtaking scenery. (Photo by Bill Malcolm)

The Saugatuck-Douglas villages in Southwest Michigan are the only LGBTQ-focused vacation areas between Provincetown and the Russian River in California. Nestled with sandy beaches along Lake Michigan (and fresh, shark-free waters), the area is not only an artist colony but now features a plethora of wineries and microbreweries and is a fruit basket (blueberries, peaches, apples, and more are all grown here). With two LGBTQ+ resorts (Dunes Resort and CampIt), there is something for everyone and for every budget. Don’t forget to take home some blueberries and peaches.

WHAT TO DO

Oval Beach in Saugatuck is an award winner. The sunsets are incredible. You can hike for miles in the nearby dunes or walk along the beach. You can also climb to the top of nearby Mount Baldhead, a high sand dune on the west side of the river. 

Take a tour of the Kalamazoo River out to Lake Michigan on an authentic stern wheel paddleboat. I loved the sunset cruise. Snacks and drinks available (cash only). You will find them at 716 Water St. in Saugatuck (saugatuckboatcruises.com). Check out the new 1860s era fish shanty and Fish Market next door. It features posters telling about the colorful fishing history of Saugatuck. 

Take a hike to the beach at the Wau-Ke-Na Nature Preserve at 116th St. just south of West Side County Park. Further north you will find the historic Pier Cove Beach (2290 Lakeshore Dr., Fennville).

North of Saugatuck you can take a hike up the dunes and down at Laketown Beach. It’s free but parking is limited. 

Take a walk around historic downtown Douglass, which even has a park honoring the Dunes Resort founders who turned the area into an LGBTQ destination. Enjoy “Unmasked: Photographic Portraits After 2020” at the new Douglas Library. 

The Saugatuck Center for the Arts has shows all summer including “Dixie’s Tupperware Party” and “Just Too Big: Songs from Broadway Blockbusters.” Details and tickets at sc4a.org.

Pick blueberries at Blue Star Farms or just grab a pint to go. (bluestarblueberries.com)

Take a hike through the sand dunes and forest down to the beach at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. 

WHERE TO STAY 

The Dunes Resort in Douglas (333 Blue Star Highway) offers cabins and motel rooms that are affordable at the weekday special rate (Monday-Wednesday). Don’t miss the bar scene, the outdoor bar and dance floor, and the many special events. The T Dance on Sundays includes a barbeque. The pool scene includes cocktails and food to order as well as cabanas. It’s another must and is great for people watching.

Upcoming events include:

Aug. 6-8 Mardi Gras Weekend

Aug. 20-21 White Party Weekend

For more information, go to dunesresort.com.

Other nearby motels include The Blue Star Motel next to the Dunes or the AmericInn just down the road, both in Douglas. The Northern Lights Condos also are an option. 

Down in Fennville, stay at the Camp It Resort, located at 6635 118th Ave. in Fennville (campitresort.com). This Michigan LGBTQ resort welcomes everyone. They just had their first trans week. Camping, cabins, bunk house, and other lodging options make this a place your affordable option. The Biggie Food Truck is perfect for a meal or snack. The pool scene is a lot of fun and they often have shows. Set on 33 acres, there store has everything you need and is open late on weekends. They too have a lot going on this season including:

July 23-25 Christmas in July

Sept. 17-19 Wine and Dine Weekend includes a tour of nearby wineries

Oct. 8-10 includes a tour of 3 new nearby microbreweries

WHERE TO EAT

The new women-owned Guardian Brewery and restaurant has a great Sunday Brunch. Their micro brews are very good. They are just off exit 41 off I-196 in Saugatuck. 

The Farmhouse Deli (100 Blue Star Highway, Douglas) features farm to table deli sandwiches, soups, and fresh squeezed juices. They are at 100 Blue Star Highway in Douglas. Try the carrot blend, Zing, fresh juice creation.

The new Isabel’s Market and Eatery (across from the Dunes Resort at 310 Blue Star Highway) features local products and has an Italian theme. Try the pastrami sandwich. You can even take a cooking class. 

Don’t miss the pizza and subs at Lakeshore Convenience and Pizza, 155 Blue Star Highway in Douglas. 

The Uncommon Coffee Roasters in downtown Saugatuck is perfect for a coffee. Pick up some beans to go.

The What Not in Fennville is another local favorite. Don’t miss the fish fry on Fridays. 

GETTING THERE

The area is about two hours from Chicago and three hours from Detroit. You can also fly into Grand Rapids or take Amtrak to Holland. If you stay at the Dunes, you might be able to get away with no car. Otherwise you need one although they do have an on-demand bus and bike rentals in downtown Saugatuck. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION 

Stop by the Saugatuck Douglas Visitors Information Center in Douglas (95 Blue Star Highway) or visit their website, Saugatuck.com.

Bill Malcolm is the nation’s only LGBTQ+ value travel columnist. Based in Indianapolis, his columns have appeared in publications across the country. His opinions are his own. Special thanks to Oval Beach, the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Douglas Dunes Resort, and Camp It Resort.

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Palm Springs remains an ideal outdoor getaway

Safe fun with hiking and other socially distanced activities

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The Indian Canyons hike is just one of many options for safe, outdoor fun in Palm Springs. (Photo by Bill Malcolm)

Palm Springs, Calif., is a perfect vacation destination when you feel safe to travel again. With outdoor hiking and adventures, there is plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the desert and mountain scenery. The LGBTQ life is back open (socially distanced, outdoor dining and drinking, masks required). The LGBTQ scene includes a vibrant downtown street, Arenas, where most (but not all) of the bars are located.

The city is nestled against the dramatic San Jacinto Mountains. The often-snow-capped peaks tower over the desert community, which is arguably the most LGBTQ friendly in the country. Palm Springs is one of seven or so cities in the Coachella Valley.

GETTING THERE: I took Southwest Airlines, which has stared service from Oakland, Denver, and Phoenix, to the very handy Palm Springs Airport. To get downtown, walk across the street to the Civic Center bus (#2) to get to your hotel. I took American back through Phoenix. Service was top notch on my favorite legacy carrier, which had great in-flight entertainment and charging stations for your devices in the seat. You can also take Amtrak direct three times a week or do an Amtrak bus/train combo to get to Palm Springs. The Sunline system also runs a bus to Riverside to connect with the commuter rail system into Los Angeles.

WHAT TO DO: Hike the Indian Canyons, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The desert oasis features the native Washington fan palm trees, which are the only palms actually native to the Golden State. Both Andreas and Murray Canyons are great for hiking. Palm Canyon runs along a river filled with palms and is an easy hike for all. Bring plenty of water as it can get hot on the trail.

Also hike the Henderson Trail as well or the trails at the end of Ramon Street. Both are free. Check out the modern mid-century architecture including north of downtown.

Don’t miss the LaQuinta Farmers Market on Sundays in Old Town LaQuinta (down the valley a bit). The LaQuinta Resort nearby was the destination for movie stars like Greta Garbo where you can still see her house. The beautiful grounds are worth a visit even if you don’t stay at this posh resort. Stop by Lulu’s Home and Fashion Accessories in Old Town La Quinta.

Visit the Lotus Garden Center in Palm Desert for art work and garden accessories. Take the Tram to the top of the mountain. Advance reservations are required.

Early risers may want to go for a walk or a run with the Palm Springs Front Runners/Walkers. Get the meeting times and locations at psfr.org. Work out at the World Gym. Day passes available.

WHERE TO EAT: The Public Greens Café has great juices. Enjoy the French pastries at Peninsula Pastries. Bouschet Wines also serves food in the parking lot on weekends. The creative bistro food is a must (www.boushet .com). You will find all three just south of downtown in the Sun Center strip mall. Nature’s Health Food (555 Sunrise) has great and healthy salads and other treats. Enjoy the take-out food at the park across the street.

Sherman’s Restaurant is great for New York-style deli food. You will find them downtown. The Native Food Café has a great meat free taco salad. Casa Mendoza’s Restaurant in La Quinta has great Mexican Food.

NIGHTLIFE: There’s a bar for everyone on Arenas Avenue downtown. Stacy’s has jazz and piano. Hunter’s is great for happy hour. You will find the leather crowd at the Eagle 501. Quad Z and Chill Bar are also fun as are Black Book Bar and Grill and Streetbar. Do some shopping at Gay Mart while you are in the neighborhood. All have set up outside seating to maintain social distancing and masks are required.

The Tool Shed at 600 E. Sunny Dunes Road is also fun. Enjoy a slice of pizza for $1. Farther out is the Barracks, which has a packed Sunday beer bust.

WHERE TO STAY: You cannot beat the value of the Motel 6 Downtown (660 S. Palm Canyon Drive). Just steps from Starbucks, the French Bakery, the Organic Restaurant, the Antiques District, and the Tool Shed Bar. Other options include the LGBTQ resorts, including those on Warm Sands Drive (just east of downtown). The Best Western downtown is also handy (and is right next to the Arenas area). I have also stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott. Also recommended is the Ace Hotel and Saguaro. You will find the LGBTQ resorts on Warm Sands and other locations. The Santiago resort is also very nice.

UPCOMING EVENTS: The Dinah Shore golf tournament has been moved to this fall. The Pride Parade may (or may not) be held in November.

TRAVEL TIPS: Summer is your value season as temps can be toasty. Also, you will need a reservation on weekends as the city is quite popular with the LA crowd. During the week is quieter.

Check current COVID-19 restrictions before any travel. When I was there, masks were required everywhere – inside and out including on hiking trails and sidewalks. Check COVID-19 travel recommendations from the CDC, the state of California, and Riverside County before booking your reservation to the area.

For more information, Visit Palm Springs, the official tourism website, has all you need to plan your Palm Springs vacation (visitpalmsprings.com). Check out their LGBTQ guide which has all the information you need including on the variety of LGBTQ resorts.

 

Bill Malcolm is America’s only LGBTQ value travel writer. Based in Indianapolis, he has written more than 30 columns that have appeared in LGBTQ publications around the country. His opinions are his own. He is not recommending travel unless authorized by the CDC, the State of California, and Riverside County. Check current COVID travel recommendations and restrictions before deciding to travel.

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Essential tips for COVID-free travel

Be ready for a patchwork of confusing rules this summer

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés)

COVID-19 will make travel a bit more complicated this summer. Going to Europe? Taking a cruise? Visiting Hawaii, San Juan or St. Lucia? Or maybe you are planning a road trip? The rules for traveling responsibly during COVID vary greatly. Be ready to encounter a patchwork of confusing rules and requirements this summer.

Depending on what you choose to do for your well-earned escape, it is going to be necessary to educate yourself on what to expect; how to travel by the rules; and be ready to prove you have a negative COVID-19 test (and it may cost you to prove it). Trust, prepping for your trip in advance will pay off.

Your health, safety, peace of mind, and fun are an important part of the travel experience. Here are five essential tips for to ensure you have a fabulous summer getaway.

1. Research before booking your trip. Before you book your trip, be sure to understand how COVID-19 has changed the experience. Nearly everything about travel has changed due to COVID-19. Hotels, airplanes, trains, theme parks, destinations and resorts have all have modified safety precautions in place. The good news is that you will likely find fewer crowds, more space and enhanced cleaning. You may also find limited services such as curfews with bars and restaurants closing early. A driving trip within the U.S. likely will find fewer restrictions compared to an island trip.

2. Make reservations and buy tickets in-advance. Before leaving for your trip, you should book your restaurant reservations and reserve your tickets to a museum or attraction. While you might not like having to plan out your vacation in advance, you will likely find it hard to do all the things you want to do by waiting. COVID-19 means capacity restrictions, so there is limited availability especially on weekends and during peak periods. You can always make changes when you are there.

3. When flying give yourself extra time at the airport. Many stores and food establishments may still be closed or have limited service, so it will take longer to buy food and drink. Some airlines have also eliminated beverage and snack service in coach, so be ready to “Bring Your Own.” If you are used to flying first class, be ready for a curtailed (i.e. downgraded) experience as well.

4. Stay at a trusted hotel. Staying at a hotel is perhaps one of the most important travel decisions you will make. Most hotels have developed respected cleaning protocols to keep you and their employees safe. Among the hotel industry’s leaders is The Four Seasons. The Four Seasons has developed “Lead With Care” that includes both obvious hotel guest protocols and enhanced procedures behind-the-scenes including employee trainings. The Four Seasons also developed an app that provides guests with the high-standard customer service the luxury chain is known for while providing guests with privacy and limiting interactions with the team. COVID-19 has increased the costs for many hotels so it is important to stay with a trusted brand that you can count on to deliver on the safety measures promised.

5. Proof of a negative COVID test. The most complicated and expensive part of COVID-free travel will be meeting a requirement, if needed, to prove you have a negative COVID test. Hawaii, San Juan, cruise ships and other travel experiences are requiring that travelers prove they are COVID negative upon arrival at the destination or before starting your trip. Some destinations even require a mid-trip test to prove, again, that you are still COVID negative. Hawaii implemented a program that requires travelers to the islands to use a ‘trusted partner’ (so you can’t use any test and vaccinations are not accepted). You must create an account at travel.hawaii.gov, download an app, and submit results upon arrival from a COVID test within 72 hours of arrival from a trust partner. Coming from Philadelphia through Chicago, that means I had to order an expensive test from American Airlines that was sent to me by UPS, the test included a virtual call to prove my identity and a virtual assistant to show me how to properly take the nasal smear.

Within a day of sending my test back via UPS, I had my results. I printed out my negative test, uploaded my results and also downloaded the QR code to my phone. Aloha! Are you negative? Mahalo.

 

Jeff Guaracino is the author of two books on LGBT travel, a syndicated travel columnist and a tourism executive with more than two decades in the industry.

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