Wish You Were Here: Gay & Lesbian Tourism in Australia
Rod Stringer from Gay & Lesbian Tourism Australia talks to Andrew Shaw about the changing nature of LGBT tourism.
It used to be the case that ‘gay-friendly’ hotels and B&Bs would flag their status by advertising in a publication like Fellow Traveller or Spartacus and put a rainbow sticker in reception. But tourism promoters – and LGBT travellers – have become more sophisticated now; today event tourism is taking over. We don’t go somewhere to ‘be’ there, we go there to attend an event (Tourism Queensland is now ‘Tourism and Events Queensland’).
The peak national body, Tourism Australia, lists two gay events on its website: the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Adelaide’s Feast festival. Melbourne’s Midsumma and Brisbane’s Pride Festival are absent.
When asked to comment on LGBT tourism for this article, Tourism Australia responded:
“About ten years ago we took a conscious decision to mainstream LGBTI, rather than treat our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender visitors as somehow different to other international visitors. So we still very much promote events such as Mardi Gras and Midsumma, as we would other events and festivals across Australia.”
There seems to be no specific campaign to push LGBTI tourism to Australia; there’s even a (somewhat alarmist) suggestion that Australia’s lack of marriage equality is putting tourists off. Could this be why the latest Spartacus Gay Travel Index ranks Australia 27 out of 187? (By the way, Sweden tops, Somalia bottoms.)
Rod Stringer is president of the Gay & Lesbian Tourism Australia (GALTA), which represents its tourism industry members by forming close alliances with local, state and national tourism bodies and helping them attract the niche LGBT market.
Stringer owns the Horizons At Peregian holiday apartments in Noosa, but his involvement in the community goes back much further. He founded Sydney’s pioneering Campaign magazine in 1975, while running a gay bar in Kings Cross. As president of GALTA – which held its AGM in Noosa last month – Stringer says his organisation does its best to represent members overseas, such as at the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association conference in Los Angeles in April.
Rod Stringer (left) with Robert Keddy from Tourism Australia and Mario Paez, vice president GALTA, at the IGLTA convention in LA, April 2015.
“The tourism bodies in Australia seem to have moved away from niche marketing,” he says. “Not only the gay market – they don’t particularly promote backpacker travel in Europe as a niche market. The only thing that seems to get funding is travel to Indigenous destinations.
“The emphasis seems to be on partnership marketing, so they’ll work with American tour agents or tour consolidators, putting particular packages together. There are Australian consolidators that specialise in the gay market as well, there’s Travel Out in Sydney, they do packages. GALTA does deal with Tourism Australia to a certain extent, we attended the ATE – Australian Tourism Exchange – in Melbourne a few months ago, which is the largest tourism event of its type in the southern hemisphere.”
Stringer has run Horizons for fifteen years, and says at first there was a relatively large gay and lesbian clientele. He had run a gay B&B in Sydney’s Kangaroo Valley so he benefited from having an established client base. In the early days he says there were 10 to 15 per cent gay clients, now it’s less than 5 per cent. As a point of difference, Horizons now advertises itself as a pet-friendly destination – a single dog up to ten kilos is welcome.
He says exclusively gay accommodation needs to be smaller to survive. “I think anything larger than five or six rooms would find it difficult to sustain financially; and the difficulty the gay community had when it used to stay at a Sheraton or a Hilton or a Marriot, that all seems to have gone now.”
This last point is supported by the LGBT Travel Survey conducted by Community Marketing & Insights (CMI) in the US, now in its nineteenth year. In 2014 the Marriott and Hilton hotel chains continued to rise to the top of LGBT brands, while boutique-style brands fell in the ranking. CMI believes the trend is due to “significant resources” spent on the LGBT market by the two chains over the last three years. CMI also estimated that the annual economic impact of LGBT travellers is over US $100 billion in the US alone.
Stringer says the emphasis on event tourism means Tourism and Events Queensland is happy to support tourism efforts around a particular event because it fits into its destination promotional budget. “We don’t quite have a Mardi Gras up here, but if there’s something of significance they would be prepared to get behind it.” He argues that because of Queensland’s size the impact of events gets diluted: things also happen in Townsville or Cairns, and Brisbane “isn’t quite as concentrated a city as Sydney or Melbourne”.
“Years ago, Tourism Queensland had a particular person in the office who used to look after our issues to do with niche tourism and I think they bracketed Indigenous tourism along with backpackers and the G&L market. That’s changed a bit too, but we are quite happy with our relationship with Tourism Queensland.”
He says good accommodation staff are “informative and friendly” to guests. “There should be people in the destination knowledgeable about the needs of the traveller so they can offer suggestions about where to go to have the best holiday.”
And sometimes that can mean suggesting they stay elsewhere. “In the earlier days we had a family from Warwick staying here over Christmas and there were a couple of girls being amorous in the swimming pool. They took umbrage at it – ‘We didn’t know it was that sort of place, we can’t have our children seeing that kind of thing’. But that’s one out of 20,000 guests, it’s not happened for a long time.”
However, Stringer says the ‘one dog up to ten kilos’ limitation can prove problematic for some guests. “I had one woman call me and she said, ‘I have a husband and two dogs, can we all come?’ I said no, but two husbands and one dog would be fine.”
Travel images courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.