Skift Take

Tour operators angry about states enacting anti-LGBT laws shouldn't reward those places. Those companies can absolutely find more welcoming destinations for their guests.

LGBTQ travelers are a highly coveted market for destinations across the United States, in large part due to their immense economic clout. The LGBTQ community in the U.S. spends an estimated 10 percent, or nearly $100 billion, of its purchasing power on travel while the group’s annual travel spending worldwide, prior to the pandemic, had exceeded $218 billion.

But as a wave of states, most notably Florida, have enacted anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent months, LGBTQ-friendly tour operators are weighing the concerns of travelers possibly unwilling to visit unfriendly locations while not slamming the door on trips to destinations popular with the community.

Florida passed a law in March prohibiting public school teachers from kindergarten through third grade from discussing matters related to sexual orientation or gender identify, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The state’s legislators also voted last month to revoke the Walt Disney Company’s self-governing status in Florida in response to Disney coming out against the legislation.

“If there are hateful laws in a place, it reduces demand for both gay and straight visitors,” said Zach Moses, the chief of marketing and technology for He Travel, a tour operator with a largely LGBTQ clientele that has taken travelers, among other activities in North America, kayaking in Florida. “People tend to avoid hostility of any kind while on holiday.”

Travel executives have expressed concerns that the new law could deter prospective visitors from one of its largest markets from coming to the state. Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing company, said close to 4 million members of the LGBTQ community visited the Sunshine State in 2019, injecting billions of dollars into its economy.

“Legislators should be ashamed of participation in anti-LGBTQ legislation,” Moses said. “It will bite them in the ass later.”

Gregg Kaminsky, the co-founder of New York-based R Family Vacations, the first company to create vacations specifically for LGBTQ families and friends, acknowledges he hears daily from travelers wary about visiting destinations enacting anti-LGBTQ legislation, especially Florida.

“It’s difficult because on one hand we do not support the racist, homophobic policies of (Florida) Governor (Ron) DeSantis,” Kaminsky said.

“But then (South Florida’s) Broward County is probably the most outwardly welcoming destination in our country, so we are invited there with open arms and included in every piece of tourism marketing they put out.”

Darren Burn, the CEO of OutOfOffice.com, a luxury tour operator specializing in LGBTQ travel, said he fully supports travelers in the community who opt not to visit locations that have enacted discriminatory laws. However, like LoAnn Halden, the vice president of communications of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, is not in favor of boycotting such destinations.

“I believe that we need to travel to these places in order to broaden mindsets and (bring about) change,” Burn said. “That cannot happen if we don’t know travel to these places and make our presence known. Simply turning up to a hotel as a gay couple can really have a big impact on those staff who might be unable to express their sexuality because of the local laws and customs.”

While Burn added that LGBTQ travelers strongly consider matters of legislation before determining what places to visit, what factors do tour operators look at when planning trips for members of the company in the current climate?

“First and most importantly, we need to decide if we feel safe visiting that destination,” Kaminsky said, adding that R Family Vacations examines how trip destinations are marketed. “And (if) we feel members of our community are safe and welcome living there. We have a choice of where we travel and we can choose to travel to places that are more welcoming.”

Regarding how the company believes a destination is safe and welcoming for its LGBTQ travelers, Kaminsky said it consults with clients there to get sense of what their experiences are. R Family Vacations has also reached out to travel associations such as the IGLTA to obtain information pertinent to travelers in the community.

Meanwhile, He Travel’s Moses said his company has travelers who still want to go to destinations with anti-LGBTQ laws on its books. So He Travel makes it a point, in each orientation it conducts prior to a trip, to go over local customs with its guests to help keep them safe in such locations.

But despite the surge in states passing anti-LGBTQ laws, Kaminsky says there are travel companies based in those destinations that he believes are very supportive of the community, citing major cruise lines with headquarters in South Florida.

“We don’t want to punish them by not sailing from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, so it’s certainly an interesting conversation with our clients and friends,” he said, adding R Family Vacations will continue to support travel companies it considers to be allies as well as welcoming destinations like Broward County and Key West.

Kaminsky also cited Visit Lauderdale’s We Are campaign, which launched last month, as a significant reason why his company will continue to take travelers to Fort Lauderdale, Broward’s County’s largest city. The campaign, which prominently features members of the LGBTQ community, is the organization’s rebuke to the recently passed controversial legislation as well as a message to one of its largest visitor markets. Fort Lauderdale welcomes roughly 1.1 million LGBTQ visitors annually.

“Fort Lauderdale and Broward County (are) the gold standard in effectively reaching out to our community and welcoming us,” Kaminsky said. “They have always celebrated diversity and we will continue to visit there and support them.”

Moses agrees that featuring LGBTQ travelers in ads is one critical step locations can take to keep attracting visitors from the community — “Show love, get love,” he said. But he believes destinations can to do more to help provide a friendly atmosphere for LGBTQ visitors.

“Publicly denounce out-of-date LGBTQ legislation and (fight to) update laws to be more welcoming,” Moses said.

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Tags: florida, gay, gay travel, lgbt, LGBT travel, lgbtq, tour operators

Photo credit: A giant rainbow flag in Key West, a popular destination for LGBT travelers Chuck Coker / Flickr