India: Unofficially ready for gay travelers

India: Unofficially ready for gay travelers

Tour operators eye a lucrative industry while the government drags its feet
“Because one bad word from a gay traveler on an Internet forum can do immense damage,” says Abhinav Goel, founder, Out Journeys, a gay and lesbian tour operator in India.

Are gay and lesbian travelers different from straight ones? Yes and no.

They are inquisitive about the same destinations (for example Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan in India) but are more sensitive to local culture, food and even religious practices.

Besides, based on mere finances, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) tourism is a US$65 billion industry in the United States alone. Surveys there suggest that gays and lesbians are more affluent and travel more, as much as two or three times a year.

To tap into this lucrative and expanding market, the 1st Asian Symposium on Gay and Lesbian Tourism was held at the Le Méridien Hotel, New Delhi on November 28.

Organized by Community Marketing, a U.S.-based LGBT market research company, this business-to-business event brought together about 75 tour and hotel operators.

Indian activists Ashok Row Kavi, founder of Humsafar Trust, and Manavendra Singh Gohil, chairperson of the Lakshya Trust, were the symposium's keynote speakers.

'India is ready for gay travelers'

The choice of destination for the event surprised many.

In Asia, Thailand is considered the friendliest LGBT country. China, Singapore and Japan all form the top rung. India, meanwhile, is almost invisible on the gay travel map right now.

“We wanted to make a statement saying that India is ready for gay travelers,” says Thomas Roth, president, Community Marketing. This after the Delhi High Court struck down provisions of Section 377 and decriminalized homosexuality in India in July 2009.

“The idea is also to create a platform for tour operators to send out a message to the worldwide community that we are gay-friendly,” adds Abhinav Goel, founder, Out Journeys, a gay and lesbian tour operator in India and one of the sponsors of the symposium.  

Of course, making a mere statement would be rather pointless.

One of the biggest areas that the symposium addressed was training hotel and tour personnel to be more accepting and less discriminatory. For instance, the word queer is acceptable in India but shunned in many other countries. And you don’t call a same-sex couple "friends". You call them "partners".

Gay travelers to India also often find themselves in an awkward quandary when men or women partners are given a room with separate twin beds instead of one double one. Since they don't feel as safe here, they’re hesitant to request for changes.

Besides the general attitude that needs to change over time, these are small things that can make a traveler happy.

“Because one bad word from a gay traveler on an Internet forum can do immense damage,” explains Goel.

Indian officials give it a miss

Attendees at the 1st Asian Symposium on Gay and Lesbian Tourism in New Delhi. The way forward is going to be tricky. Concise forums and presentations aren’t enough.

Organizers say that countries like Brazil, Thailand and Spain are extremely popular among LGBT travelers because their governments have created a welcoming environment.

But the Indian government seems to have a long way to go.

Three Indian officials had registered to attend the symposium but didn’t turn up. Thailand sent four people and even paid for their trip.

“It’s an incredible effort on the part of the local travel agents to do this on their own despite not getting support from the tourism ministry, which I think is an opportunity squandered,” says Sylvia Tan, editor of gay news and media site Fridae.asia, who traveled from Singapore to attend the symposium.

India now has about seven tour operators dedicated to the LGBT market. And established players like Cox & Kings have expressed interest in this segment.

“The audience also heard from Amit Prasad, chief operating officer of Go India Journeys, who has recently set up a team of three staff members out of a staff strength of 65 to research and meet the needs of LGBT travellers,” writes Tan in her report on the conference.

Himmat Anand, founder of Tree of Life resort, Jaipur, also participated and was one of the speakers. But the way forward is to bring larger hotel chains like Taj and Oberoi into the fold.

And of course, those elusive ministry officials.

Plans are, in fact, already being drawn for the second edition. Jaipur and Mumbai are both being considered, though Thailand makes a very strong case.

Jhilmil Motihar is a freelance features writer, people-watcher and traveler -- often all three at the same time.

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