Cover Story

The gay getaway

Travel agencies, airlines, and even chambers of commerce are fighting for the "pink dollar"-the vacation business of homosexuals. It's one more sign of a culture turned upside down, but Christians are responding with their pocketbook power.

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

(in Key West, Fla.) - Key West's Mallory Square at sunset looks like a Jimmy Buffet song: reprobates and rummies mixing with lots of well-oiled tourists. Steel drum bands compete with street performers showing off trained dogs or juggling feats. Naturally, there are plenty of opportunities to drop a little money: boat drinks over here ($6 for a rum-and-Coke), genuine sea shell jewelry over there.

The square is the site of the nightly Sunset Celebration. On the horizon is one of the hemisphere's most glorious nightly sights, and the tourists gather to toast it. But in truth, the Mallory Square scene is a little, well, pedestrian. The place to be at sundown is aboard the tall ship Liberty Clipper-especially on Friday night, which is "Ladies Night." There are no ladies aboard, of course, because it's an all-homosexual evening sail, with a drag queen as entertainment and free wine and beer. "Sushi," dressed as a female sailor, is the star attraction of the Bourbon Street Pub-one of nearly a dozen gay bars in Key West. He/she mingles with passengers and loves to quote Winston Churchill when he was in charge of the British navy and summed up naval tradition as "rum, sodomy, and the lash, you know!"

"It gets a little wild," says Tony, a volunteer crew member for the tall ship, as it gently rolls through the surf off the island. "But there are more than enough [homosexual passengers] to justify a dedicated booking, and that's what it's all about."

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In fact, Key West has gained a reputation as a homosexual hot spot. Greg Needham, who edits the weekly Gay West magazine, says the island has courted the reputation-and the lucrative homosexual tourism market. It's attempting to join Provincetown, Mass., and San Francisco as "must-visit places," he told WORLD.

"Now, just about everyone knows about Key West," he says. "It might scare off a few of the families, but most people have an idea of what's here. In fact, I see a lot of them hitting the drag shows as kind of a vacation novelty. It's just part of the fun."

This is the high season for tourism marketing efforts. People are planning their summer vacations, and tourist destinations are competing fiercely for the family dollar. But more and more destinations are actively seeking a different dollar-the "pink dollar," as the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association calls it:

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been discouraging raucous Spring Break crowds and is seeking to fill the beaches and empty hotel rooms with homosexual travelers. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce began with ads in homosexual publications, declaring that "Greater Fort Lauderdale rolls out the rainbow carpet!" The reason, according to the Chamber, is that homosexuals spend a lot more money than inebriated college students. The Visitors Bureau conducted a study last year and found that about half a million homosexuals visit Fort Lauderdale each year, spending upwards of $1,000 each. The Bureau did not ask how much those college students spent, or how much families spend.

The London Tourism Board has been targeting homosexuals with an ad campaign in San Francisco. "If you think South Beach is the only place for tea this winter, we suggest you try London," the campaign says. The references are to South Beach in Miami, a homosexual gathering spot, and to "tea dances," which is slang for homosexual meeting places. The campaign is the project of British Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who is openly homosexual. British Airways helped provide funding.

British Airways, by the way, began making its pitch for the pink dollar last year, when it planned two South African safaris specifically for homosexuals. The South Africa Splendor Tour, which cost about $5,500 per person, was the first in what British Airways hopes will be a number of dedicated tours and trips each year.

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau vigorously lobbied for the 1998 International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association convention; the theme of the advertising campaign was "Philadelphia: The City that Loves You Back."

The Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau won the 1999 IGLTA convention. It will have a "Wizard of Oz" theme (Judy Garland, a favorite among homosexuals, was from Minnesota).

"The gay dollar is worth going after," says Monty Jackson, executive director of the Key West Business Guild, a group of homosexual-owned and "gay-friendly" businesses. "We have 480 members, and we estimate that about 20 to 25 percent of the visitors to Key West are gay. That's a significant portion of the tourism market here."

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