The world has gotten a lot bigger and a lot friendlier for gay and lesbian travelers since Hanns Ebensten led a group of men down the Colorado River in 1972. Three years later, he booked a cruise to the Galapagos Islands for 65 men.
Ebensten was onto something. He was the first travel agent to book gay vacations, and his daring all those years ago is widely viewed as the founding of gay travel — a $60 billion business today that cities and vacation hot spots spend millions of dollars to attract.
It’s been escalating during the past 10 years and could be fueled even more by legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. Now that Connecticut has joined California and Massachusetts in legalizing gay marriage, more honeymoon trips are expected all around the world.
“The opportunity for tourism is pretty staggering,” said David Paisley of San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc., which has been researching gay and lesbian consumer preferences since 1992. “There are a huge number of people out there waiting.”
Travel experts expect business to pick up, despite the economy, if Proposition 8 on the November ballot fails to approve a change in California’s constitution to eliminate the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry. Since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage earlier this year, about 11,000 gay and lesbian couples statewide took the plunge.
But not many of them took honeymoons. Travel experts said many couples have been holding off on big weddings and trips until after the election.
“Many of us have gotten ‘married’ many times, with commitment ceremonies and domestic partnerships,” said Judy Dlugacz, founder and president of Olivia, which started as a women’s record company in 1973 and has evolved into a leader in lesbian travel.
Eighty lesbian couples decided not to risk passage of Prop. 8 and got married at the Hard Rock San Diego on Oct. 3 before departing on Olivia’s seven-day “Women in Music and Sports” cruise of the Mexican Riviera.
The newlyweds were honored with a reception at the hotel after the nuptials and were treated to Champagne toasts by the 1,850 passengers on board when Holland America’s Oosterdam set sail the next morning. Honeymoon suites were replete with flowers, a full-size whirlpool and veranda.
But even without wedding certificates, studies show year after year that gay travelers have more disposable income to spend, tend to stay longer, spend more while they’re there and are more likely to have passports. More gay and lesbian couples also have children now, another niche for family travel.
For the couples without children, marketers gleefully look at them as “dinks” — “dual incomes and no kids.”
“Like the frozen credit markets now, the travel market froze after 9/11,” said Ed Salvato, editor in chief of Out Travel, which is based in New York. “The only group that proved itself resilient was the gay and lesbian group, and marketing recognized this and started to target the market; 2001 was a watershed year.”
San Francisco, Palm Springs, Provincetown, Mass., and Key West, Fla., have been popular destinations for gay travelers for years, but the fact that so many cities “large and small” are now promoting their areas as gay friendly “shows how much competition there is for the pink dollars,” Salvato said. “Lavender dollars for lesbians.”
Internationally, Buenos Aires has become a hit destination for gays, Salvato said. “It’s fabulously inexpensive and has a great combination of things.”
“Montreal is also huge,” he said. “Gays and lesbians just have a blast. Gay restaurants, a gay strip, much infrastructure. Gay marriage is legal there.”
Within the United States, Fort Lauderdale is big “with winter coming in,” and Santa Fe “is just magical,” Salvato said. “For a little bit of the outdoor feel, Portland is a little off the beaten track, has great food and great beer.”
A study released in June by UCLA’s Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation and the Law estimated that gay men and lesbians who marry in California will spend $684 million in the state over the next three years, on everything from cakes to fancy locations for the ceremonies. About half of the state’s more than 102,000 gay and lesbian couples will marry during the next three years and more than 67,500 couples from other states will head to California to marry.
“There will clearly be an uptick in business,” both in travel dollars to get there and wedding costs, Salvato said.
The magazine’s Web site —www.outtraveler.com — has a honeymoon roundup featuring what it says are the “Top 5 Honeymoon Destinations” for its readers: Hawaii; Provincetown; Montreal; Santa Fe; and Puerto Vallarta, “one of the best honeymoon spots south of the border.”
California ranks high on other lists. A Travel Industry Survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual travelers in 2006 found that four out of the top 15 gay-friendly destinations in the United States are in California. They are San Francisco, Los Angeles, Palm Springs/Palm Desert and San Diego.
Each of those spots, along with Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Lake Tahoe and Napa, was quick to reach out to gay and lesbian couples as just the place for them to say “I do.”
Already in Palm Springs, “95 percent of our civil marriages are gay,” said Mary Jo Ginther, director of tourism for Palm Springs. “It’s really increased tremendously for us in Palm Springs.”
The state’s Travel and Tourism Commission Association has created a page of same-sex marriage locations and honeymoon ideas on its Web site at www.visitcalifornia.com/lgbt.
Susan Wilcox, spokeswoman for the commission, said, “The fact that four of the top 15 gay-friendly destinations in the U.S. are in California speaks volumes about how accepting Californians are of gay and lesbian lifestyles.”