January 28, 2007

Gay cruises sail into the travel mainstream


On Memorial Day weekend, Cunard's behemoth 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. The difference this time: Practically all the guests on the 2,592-passenger cruise will be gay.

It's a first for Cunard. The line signed a deal with RSVP Vacations, a gay and lesbian travel company that has chartered the ship. The agreement is one sign among many of gay cruises' progression into the mainstream of 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 a handful of gay-friendly destinations. But as the overall rate in the growth of passengers and spending has slowed in recent years, the industry has become keenly aware of the gay travel market, estimated at $55 billion and growing.

Gay and lesbian 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 during the 12 months ending in August 2006, compared with four trips for Americans in general, and spent a median of $6,273 on travel, 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 "recruiting and soliciting our business," said Jeff Soukup, chief executive of RSVP Vacations.

It's common for gay cruises to sail to the same ports popular with most cruisers. For the coming season, RSVP (which was acquired in 2006 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, chartered Royal Caribbean's newest vessel, Freedom of the Seas, for a weeklong Caribbean sailing this month. And Olivia, a lesbian travel company, is offering cruise itineraries to a range of destinations, both common and exotic, including the Galapagos, 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 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."

Gay and lesbian 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 sort of a safe environment."

Olivia 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.
There are still destinations that gay cruises avoid. One is Jamaica, where two gay-rights activists have been murdered in recent 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, passengers on a similar cruise by the same company were greeted in the Caymans in 2006 with rainbow-patterned welcome signs in some shop windows.

A larger, more open presence of gay passengers also is showing itself on cruises not specifically pitched to gay travelers. 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.

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. Because of this, he said, gay cruises are increasingly becoming "straight-friendly."

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