Gay travel emerges as an out and out success

Hotels can no longer afford to simply hang a rainbow flag if they want to attract the pink dollar. It's a market now counted in the billions.

AUSTRALIA'S gay and lesbian travel market is worth a whopping $4 billion a year, according to a study to be published in London on Wednesday. The research provides new insight into what has always been considered a niche market but should clearly not be dismissed as a small one.

The results, revealed to The Sun-Herald ahead of the official release at the World Travel Market in London, show the median leisure travel spend for the Australian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) market was $1500 last year. Twelve per cent of respondents spent more than $10,000 on leisure travel last year.

The wide-ranging 2010 global LGBT study was done by consultancy Out Now, spanning 23 countries and 10 languages. In Australia, where the international consultancy worked in collaboration with the Sydney Star Observer, Southern Star Melbourne and QNews, about 1500 people completed the detailed questionnaire.

The Australian-born founder and chief executive of Out Now, Ian Johnson, says there were surprises in the results, not least the high-spending figure.

Johnson was also surprised to discover that the top two items bought online by the Australian LGBT community are airline tickets and hotel rooms. "That's even ahead of people buying music online," he says.

The study reveals that Britain tops the list of the most desired travel destination.

Johnson says London is obviously a big attraction but many LGBT travellers also head to the seaside city of Brighton, which has a huge gay population, and the city of Manchester, which has a popular pink precinct.

Johnson says that while Sydney has lost much of the character of its Oxford Street area, Manchester has made an effort to protect the character of its gay village.

Second on the list of desired destinations for Australian LGBT travellers is France, followed by the US.

Johnson is surprised France bumped the US, because the latter's big cities, particularly New York and San Francisco, have long been among the biggest drawcards for the LGBT market. Making up the remainder of the top 10 desired destinations are Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece and Japan.

Johnson attributes the large number of European destinations to a more ready acceptance of LGBT lifestyles in European countries. Johnson says tourist boards are often quick to hang their shingle on "big gay events" such as the Mardi Gras and Pride festivals but the research shows these play a limited role in determining travel plans.

Of Australian respondents, 16 per cent said big events were very important in motivating them to travel, with almost as many saying they were not very important at all.

"With the tourist boards we work with, we pull back from [focusing on gay events]," Johnson says.

"We tell them to focus on their local assets rather than on those obvious events. The consumer can be gayed-out."

Johnson says it's easy to assume that LGBT travellers will be looking for gay-specific attractions; however, this is often not the case. The No. 1 activity for Australian LGBT travellers is dining, followed by museums.

Nightlife comes in third, followed by art galleries, local history and beaches. Johnson says the tourism industry needs to recognise LGBT travellers are no different to other travellers in that they just want to feel comfortable and welcome in their surrounds.

"These days, when it comes to pink dollars, suddenly everyone's 'gay-friendly' and the consumer is highly wary of that," he says. "Businesses think they can bung on a rainbow flag, put 'gay-friendly' on their website and take the money. Unfortunately, the reality doesn't always match the promise."

Johnson says the most common issue LGBT travellers face is at hotel check-in, when their bedding arrangements are questioned or the attitude of a staff member suddenly changes.

Room service can also be an uncomfortable experience in hotels where staff are not accustomed to LBGT guests.

"Well-trained staff make all the difference when it comes to letting the LGBT guest enjoy what other travellers take for granted," Johnson says. "LGBT travellers don't want anything weird or different, they just want to relax and feel comfortable."

Warm welcome

GOLD COAST TOURISM has become the first Australian organisation to adopt a new accreditation program for "gay welcoming" accommodation. Ten Gold Coast hotels have signed up to the GayComfort training program, aimed at ensuring hospitality staff are genuinely adept at dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender guests. Overseas, the program has been adopted by Europe's largest tour operator, TUI, along with many other tourist boards.

From early next year, LGBT travellers will be able to search a website for all GayComfort-accredited accommodation around the world.