November 6, 2006

Gay cruises sailing into mainstream

Next Memorial Day weekend, Cunard's behemoth liner the Queen Mary 2 will depart for a routine six- day Atlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, England, with the usual white-glove service, decadent cuisine and formal evening wear after sundown. The difference this time: Practically all the guests aboard the 2,592-passenger cruise will be gay.
It's a first for Cunard. The line signed a deal earlier this year with RSVP Vacations, a gay travel company that has chartered the ship. The agreement is one sign among many of gay cruises' progression into the mainstream of cruise travel.
Most gay-cruise operators run charter businesses, paying cruise lines to use their ships and crews. In the early days of gay cruises, about 20 years ago, that often meant working with little-known lines or securing second-tier ships.
Itineraries often included just a handful of gay-friendly destinations. But as the overall rate in the growth of passengers and spending has slowed in recent years, the cruise industry has become keenly aware of the gay travel market, estimated at $55 billion and growing.
Big spenders
Gay travelers tend to take trips more often, stay longer and spend more than other travelers, according to a survey by Community Marketing Inc., a research firm specializing in the gay travel market. Gay travelers took a median of five overnight trips in the last 12 months ended in August 2006, compared with four trips for Americans in general, and spent a median of $6,273 in travel expenses, compared with roughly $3,000 for all travelers.
To get a piece of that lucrative market, cruise companies that "really hadn't thought much about the gay and lesbian market" are now "actively recruiting and soliciting our business," said Jeff Soukup, chief executive of RSVP Vacations.
It's now common for all-gay cruises to sail to the same ports popular with most cruisers, often on the same popular ships. For the coming season, RSVP (which was acquired in March by PlanetOut Inc., a media and entertainment company that caters to gay audiences) has chartered major cruise companies' flagship vessels, including the Amsterdam of the Holland America Line and the Caribbean Princess of Princess Cruises, as well as the Queen Mary 2.
Atlantis Events, which operates tours for gay travelers, has charted Royal Caribbean's newest vessel, Freedom of the Seas - at a capacity of 3,634 passengers it is even bigger than the Queen Mary 2 - for a week-long Caribbean sailing in January; it is already sold out. And Olivia, a lesbian travel company, is offering cruise itineraries this winter to a range of destinations, both common and exotic, including the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Tahiti, Alaska and Amsterdam.
All of this means more options for travelers. Pat Funk, 53, a real estate broker from Cannon Beach, Ore., has been going on Olivia cruises ever since she met her partner, Dale Shafer, on one 10 years ago. Back then, she said, the ships were older and there weren't as many offerings, but each year since, "they do more exotic or upscale trips." This season, the couple plans to go the Galapagos, Antarctica and Amsterdam.
Gay travelers are interested in the same destinations as any others, said Amy Errett, the chief executive of Olivia, but they want to see those places "in community and in sort of a safe environment." Olivia inspects each ship and itinerary, sending staff members to visit ports and try out land excursions before booking any charter. It briefs crews on what to expect of a ship full of women - they tend to use lots of towels, for instance - and often takes aboard entertainers who appeal to lesbian audiences. This March, Melissa Etheridge will join Olivia's week-long Caribbean sailing.
Entertainment budget
Extra onboard parties and entertainers tend to push the price of all-gay cruises slightly above other cruise prices. For example, starting prices for indoor cabins on Princess Cruises' week-long October Mexican Riviera cruise recently were listed from $649 on RSVP Vacations was offering a similar October Mexican Riviera cruise on the same ship, but with a host of singers, DJs and comedians, starting at $795 for early bookers.
There are still destinations that gay cruises avoid; one is Jamaica, where two gay-rights activists have been murdered in the past two years. But other destinations are becoming more welcoming.
In 2004, Sandals Resorts rescinded its ban on gay couples at its all-inclusive properties. And while a gay cruise charted by Atlantis Events was turned away from the Cayman Islands in 1997, this year 3,200 passengers on a similar cruise by the same company were greeted in the Caymans with rainbow-patterned welcome signs in some shop windows.
A larger, more open presence of gay passengers is also showing itself on cruises not pitched to gay travelers. The New York-based Pied Piper Travel, which caters to gay groups, booked about 430 gay passengers to the Caribbean the week after Thanksgiving last year - the company's most popular trip. This year, 600 gay travelers have already signed up for the same cruise, filling nearly a quarter of the ship, Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas.
And conventional cruise lines have begun to offer welcome parties for gay travelers, dubbed Friends of Dorothy - a slang term used among some gays to describe themselves.
Fellow passengers aren't always as friendly. Online postings in the Gay and Lesbian Cruisers forum at Cruise describe experiences ranging from easy mixing with other passengers to homophobic incidents. A Seabourn passenger using the screen name "inthesurf" said in a February 2006 posting that at an on-deck barbecue, a passenger hurled anti-gay slurs and a glass of water at her and her partner. "We were horrified, and reduced to tears in front of Seabourn staff and passengers," she wrote.
Cruise lines and gay travelers alike, however, say incidents like this are rare. And as gay cruises continue to join the mainstream, more mixing leads to even more openness.
In fact, gay cruises have become so popular that a reverse phenomenon is starting to emerge. "We're finding a lot of gay travelers have straight friends who want to be a part of this," said Tom de Rose, owner of Friends of Dorothy Travel in San Francisco.

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