Chapel Hill was the first town in the state to include sexual orientation as a category of hate crime law, as well as the first to elect an openly gay council member.
And now, the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau is one of the first to invest in gay and lesbian tourism.
“The bottom line is that we’re trying to capture as many tourist dollars as we can,” County Commissioner Mike Nelson said. “We’re trying to reach out to a segment in the market that has been underserved in the past.”
Although county tourism has seen 8 percent gains in the past five years, strategies must be changed in order to ensure a promising future, said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the visitors bureau.
This year, the bureau budgeted $10,000 for marketing to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-identified tourists, and became members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
GLBT tourism is a $65 billion-a-year market and growing quickly, Paolicelli said.
“It’s because they’re largely dual-income with no kids, and also because they like to travel more than the average person,” she said. “They also are willing to pay the higher hotel rates, which Chapel Hill has.”
But luring the desired demographic may take more than marketing.
“When I travel, I often look to see if there’s a gay bar, or if there’s a GLBT community center,” and Orange County has neither, said Taylor Brown, former co-chairman of the GLBT-Straight Alliance.
“The GLBT night life is fairly limited here.”
There are two prominent GLBT events in Chapel Hill – a coffee night at Caffé Driade on Wednesdays and Stir, a dance party at East End Martini Bar on Sundays, which Brown hosts.
“It would be difficult to target the GLBT community as a tourist market without having a stronger, more visible gay community,” Brown said.
Even so, Nelson said he expects that Chapel Hill’s cuisine, Hillsborough’s history and Carrboro’s quirkiness will draw visitors, perhaps even those who aren’t University sightseers.
The bureau has spent some of this year’s funds on a gay tourism Web site. Mostly authored by gay Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, the site gives recommendations for a two-day gay rendezvous at local restaurants and attractions.
The site advertises the town’s politics, using former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ famous quote about building a fence around the liberal Chapel Hill “zoo” as a marketing tool.
“Especially in Carrboro, if you kiss, nobody’s going to look twice,” senior David-Aidan Mackey said between sips Wednesday at Driade.
Paolicelli and Nelson also plan to meet with GLBT-related organizations to urge them to host national meetings and events locally.
Still, Chapel Hill has too few fashion shows, art venues and places to meet up, Mackey said.
Jermaine Caldwell, a UNC alumnus who helped start Stir, said securing an identity for the gay community is difficult since people leave the town for bigger cities after college.
“I’ve been around when all the different gay nights popped up here and there, then failed,” he said.
You know what you’re getting if you go to San Francisco or New York or South Beach, Caldwell said.
“We have all the pieces, we just need to put it together.”