Gay travel has thus far experienced tremendous amounts of change during the course of its relatively brief life. This industry, now worth an estimated $65 billion in domestic sales annually, is generally agreed to have started in 1972 when gay travel pioneer Hanns Ebensten led an all-gay male group of rafters down the Colorado River.
Initially mocked in mainstream publications for offering ‘sissy’ and ‘fag’ tours, Hanns continued offering trips for gay men all over the world. Though he passed away several years ago (and I had the great honor of having lunch with him the year before he died), his company still exists. Hanns Ebensten Travel (HETravel.com) is the sister company to the well-known and highly regarded Alyson Adventures (AlysonAdventures.com).
Back when I started in the industry in 1998 as the associate editor for OUT&ABOUT, a monthly subscription-based newsletter that was considered the standard of gay travel, very few destinations courted gay and lesbian travelers. Among the few that did were Key West, Provincetown and Palm Springs, which to a certain extent simply decided to ‘drive into the skid,’ meaning they were already going in the direction of becoming a gay destination and decided to capitalize on it.
A huge turning point was in the 1990s when Ft. Lauderdale decided to target this market that they determined was desirable since it typically comprises dual-income, no-kid gay men (and some women) with lots of disposable time and income as well as an intense loyalty for advertisers who court them appropriately (meaning with an authentic invitation). What was most striking about their decision was they essentially swapped out the hetero spring break segment for the more sophisticated and higher-spending gay and lesbian segment.
Another seismic shift occurred after 9/11 when travel was down throughout almost the entire industry except among gay and lesbian travelers who proved to be resilient. Many more destinations began marketing to the lesbian and gay segment after this point, a trend that has shown no signs of abating.
Recently all segments including gay and lesbian travelers have tapped on their brakes. Travel is down around the world due to the effects of the Great Recession. However, gay and lesbian travelers have cut back less, which again demonstrates their importance to the overall travel industry. With lots of pent up demand for travel, many travel suppliers are forecasting an increase in travel consumption. Anecdotally, I’ve seen that as well in terms of attendance at gay consumer travel panels I conduct as well as in inquiries to my call-in show on Sirius OutQ and on my Website, EdSalvato.com.
Below: Lesbian couple with kid on trip to Provincetown.