Known by other names like the “Pink Pound” or “Dorothy Dollar” the LGBT+ spend is an important part of any country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Because it is still stigmatised in many countries and cultures around the world, the LGBT+ community is an underserved one. But there's hope that that's changing. As the world becomes increasingly accepting of differences, so is the travel industry. In the past, LGBT+ travel meant a very specific kind of experience. San Francisco, Rio De Janeiro and closer to home, Taipei, were the destinations of choice because they were the rare few destinations that people who defy sexual and gender norms felt like they were welcome. Sure, to define a traveller by the way their sexual orientation or gender identity feels like a microscopic perspective of what an individual’s likes or dislikes are based upon, but for an industry as vast as tourism, it’s a way to narrow the scope down, to hone in and attract a niche customer — and it just makes good business sense.
I recently spoke to Julie Vu at a conference about inclusivity in tourism in Bangkok, Thailand, organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Vu is a Canadian transgender woman who chronicled her male-to-female transition on her Youtube channel, Princess Joules. “I do get the occasional stares and whispers of people trying to figure out if I am a man or a woman. Otherwise, for me, my experiences have been positive.” That’s heartening to hear but there are others who aren’t as lucky. One of the most public examples was the experience of another transgender personality, Gigi Gorgeous who was denied entry and detained temporarily at Dubai’s airport.
Tourism Authority of Thailand
With 532 thousand subscribers, Julie Vu is one of Youtube’s biggest trans voices.
In our conversation, Vu mentions Thailand as a favourite place of travel of hers. “The Land of Smiles”, as the country is often referred to, is one of Asia’s most tolerant countries, thanks in part to an accepting, easy-going way of life and as well as the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1956. In addition, the country is home to many high-profile LGBT+ members who have helped normalise it in the media. Thailand even broadcast the first iteration of RuPaul’s Drag Race (an American reality TV series) to be held outside of America. Vu echoes the sentiment that a person’s travel is not defined by who their bedfellows are. “I think it's a great thing and definitely smart of the travel and tourism sector to turn their focus to our community because we love to travel. We love to explore and visit every pride in every city. Most of us don't have kids, and are double-income folks.”
Diversity and acceptance have been a topic in the zeitgeist for some time now. With questions of inclusion and representation being constantly raised, and rightly so, it has taken a globalised world much too long to realise that the fair-skinned, heteronormative idea of perfection is outdated and for many industries, it can prove unprofitable as well. The global market for LGBT+ tourism is estimated to be worth in excess of US$200 billion. In Thailand specifically, it accounted for US$5.3 billion dollars of the country’s GDP in 2018. It is no wonder that the TAT has taken notice of that, launching “Go Thai. Be Free.” – a campaign with an online resource of the same name that helps travellers with an inclusive guide to navigating the country. They also invited us to a two-day symposium that discussed the importance of catering to a wider demographic, one that touched on sensitivities of the underserved community as well as ways to cash in on a market that has massive potential for growth.
In an address at the symposium, Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor for international marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand underscored the importance of catering to and being sensitive to the segment of the market without pandering. “The LGBT+ traveller is incredibly diverse. They are open to new and diverse experiences when they travel. They are ambitious and adventurous. They are open to people and to culture,” said Ayudhya. According to Christopher E. Stafford, the COO of 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, the devil is in the details. “It’s all in the details of the room set-up, arrival and departure experience and making this a wow-ing experience for each and every customer. As we learn more about the LGBT market we are in the positive situation of being flexible and can adapt to any new needs that we learn about.” For a boutique hotel, agility is an important asset in these changing times. We spoke to Mark Wong the vice president of Asia Pacific at Small Luxury Hotels of the World who has committed, group-wide to be inclusive. When asked about the topic, he reaffirmed that, “We want to connect with like-minded people who want to know what a place is really like, what kind of experience they’re going to have and what it is they’re going to remember and pass on from their stay. More importantly, we want our LGBTQ+ guests to feel welcomed, safe and respected. We are not going to patronise them.”
Tourism Authority of Thailand
The LGBT travel symposium held at The Peninsula Bangkok.
While it’s a step in the right direction, one can’t help but feel the main issues of inclusive travel here (at the conference) were glossed over with pretty pamphlets of customised tours and the promise of sensitivity, which in the grand scheme of things speaks to tolerance and monetisation and less so to actual acceptance. But it’s a start. Elsewhere, discrimination is still rife but in Bangkok at least, there seems to be a perfume of inclusivity, especially at the properties highlighted in the conference that even include big chain hotels like the Rosewood, Peninsular and Shangri-La groups. The hospitality that Thailand and the capital exude cannot be denied from the attractions to restaurants and hotels — not an eyelid was batted at same-sex couples or individuals who defied gender norms. But it’s only the first step. Above glossy travel packages and pronoun conscientiousness, there are pockets of minorities within the community that remain invisible, due largely in part to a lower spending power. Those not wealthy enough to stay at a property that has an understanding of the issues at hand don’t also have access to the lovely tours put together specifically for the community, not all LGBT+ people are high-flying, double-income, childless families with disposable income. Above a commercial interest, these are the places and people that need to be served most. But an issue this wide requires a certain sensitivity and needs to be explored in greater depth.
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