More than a niche

While some business segments are just beginning to understand and tap the potential of the LGBT community, the gay travel market is already well established, generating an estimated $65 billion in Europe and $64 billion in the United States last year, according to the Gay European Tourism Association.

“It is a niche market but it’s a very, very large niche market and one that appears to be growing very rapidly, particularly in Asia,” says Nigel Phillips, managing director of London-based OUT4YOU, the operator of the websites Travel Gay Asia and Travel Gay Europe.

He foresees especially high potential for inter-Asian travel to keep growing within the gay community.

“Gay travellers tend to travel more often and they spend more money [than heterosexuals], so they are seen as a very valuable market sector,” he says.

The LGBT tourism market globally is estimated to be worth $180 billion this year. Gay couples spend between $1,300 and $2,000 per trip and take three to four trips annually. According to the “Global Report on LGBT Tourism” by the UN World Tourism Organization, the United States remains the top country for the industry at around $52 billion, followed by Brazil at $22.9 billion and Japan at $18.5 billion. In Europe, the LGBT market is worth about $58 billion, according to the UNWTO.

Europe offers good examples of how LGBT travel can spur the industry as a whole.

The Greek island of Mykonos for years had a vibrant gay scene and now is a thriving upmarket and cosmopolitan destination for travellers of all tastes. In Barcelona, the two-week Circuit Festival, an international gay and lesbian event, has created a new attraction in off-peak August, bringing in an estimated 50 million euros and creating up to 900 direct and indirect jobs.

The impact of such events is substantial once spending on air travel is factored in, along with local hotels, restaurants, bars and shops, notes Mr Phillips.

“There is a huge potential within Asia to do that,” he says. “Destinations need to grasp that opportunity and start establishing events that bring in the travellers; it’s a huge market.

“Within Europe now there is this multi-billion dollar industry targeting the gay market, of which we only see signs emerging, particularly in Taipei, and to a lesser extent in Bangkok.”

Taipei Pride has become one of Asia’s major LGBT events, drawing more than 100,000 visitors annually during October.

Looking to emulate that success are the Songkran Gay Circuit Party in Bangkok and the Pink Dot in Singapore, which both took place earlier this year.

But as Bangkok and Singapore already are well-known gay travel destinations, Mr Phillips says more effort is needed to diversify by adding new events, destinations and travel possibilities.

Patronising gay districts and nightlife is just part of the LGBT traveller’s holiday, after all. The rest of the time is spent visiting well-known tourist attractions and pursuing the same kinds of activities that all travellers enjoy when they visit a country.

In Bangkok, gay-friendly hotels near Silom and Sathorn roads were popular during the Songkran Circuit Party, and for the Pink Dot in Singapore, Chinatown saw many LGBT visitors.

“There’s no denying that LGBT travellers are a dynamic and influential segment within the tourism sector — one whose willingness to come out and be counted will continue to grow as society becomes more accepting and human rights laws that promote equality are passed,” states the “Global Report on LGBT Tourism” from 2012.

In the view of the UNWTO, progress on human rights and equality issues has a direct proportional influence on economic gains.

Mr Phillips, on the other hand, believes the impact is relative, and the importance lies more in the positive perception toward gay travellers, even though LGBT rights are a huge issue.

“The reality is, the vast majority of countries in the world are perceived as being welcoming to gay travellers. It is a minority of countries now which are perceived as being unfriendly and would be avoided,” he says.

The UNWTO has observed that Asian countries from India to Japan have become more serious about attracting LGBT travellers, motivated by their high spending power.

ITB Asia, a major travel fair held annually in Singapore annually, this year set aside a Pink Corner that gave space to niche hotels and tour operators.

“The LGBT market is a highly attractive niche market, so we are using the Pink Corner as a test to find out more and listen to the needs of this market,” said the event’s executive director, Nino Gruettke.

But many industry experts say the LGBT market in Southeast Asia has been there for ages but little attention has been paid by hotel operators and businesses.

Among the countries that are most frequented by LGBT travellers visiting the region are Thailand and Indonesia (Bali), while others such as Japan, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam and India are also emerging as hotspots.

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