Fly the Queer-Friendly Skies

Gays and lesbians may be some distance from achieving full equality in this country, but there's no question that we're progressing by leaps and bounds as a market niche. One of the clearest signs of this 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. Yes indeed, girlfriend, we have arrived. All-homo holidays in the Caribbean, London, or just about anywhere you can name are within your grasp, provided you have the disposable income. Not everyone finds this prospect appealing, of course. As a San Francisco gay journalist I can easily go for 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 a refreshing change. 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 two parallel universes existing side-by-side in the same place, 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 can 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, 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 some 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. But 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, while with RSVP what's in the brochure is what you're going to pay. "My major gripe with RSVP," Hudson adds, "is their cancellation penalties and change penalties. Considering that their major market is the gay community, which is obviously dealing with AIDS, I think they're not what they should be." 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 an 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 1-800-448-8550 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 on-line. America Online, for example, has a gay travel forum (keyword "GLCF Travel") with an array of message boards and a weekly gay travel 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, California.

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