The US tourism industry sustained a downturn following the 2001 terrorist attacks, as travelers were reluctant to fly. After the 2008 economic crash, the effect was global and more pronounced, as individuals and families all but eliminated their travel budgets. But following both events, an unexpected trend emerged: LGBTQ travelers were more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to start traveling in the early stages of recovery. That trend appears to be continuing now, with LGBTQ travelers planning to begin traveling this summer, even as pandemic restrictions are being lifted.
The Resiliency of LGBTQ Travelers: The Evidence
While we don’t have scientific data to rely on following the 2001 terrorist attacks, anecdotally, a variety of tour operators who serve the LGBTQ audience have reported fielding inquiries and even bookings soon after the crisis. Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, an LGBT market expert, says, “Travel remains a high priority for LGBT consumers—even when overcoming setbacks. We witnessed this in 2001 following 9/11, as well as post-recession in 2009, when LGBT adults showed strong personal appetite to travel once again.”
Bryan Herb, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Zoom Vacations, agrees. He says, “After the recession, that was one of our best years ever. We barely lost any business, and had a couple trips with record numbers. This is when the straight market had numbers declining.”
In 2012, the World Tourism Organization backed up this assertion in its “Global Report on LGBT Tourism.” As the economic recovery put travel within reach again, the report observed, “LGBT Americans in particular showed increasing interest and attention to travel. This past summer, in fact, we saw an uptick among two thirds of LGBT adults who reported their leisure travel this summer.”
Results from May’s International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) survey and a Harris Poll are demonstrating that the trend will continue in 2020, with LGBTQ travelers reporting their intention to begin traveling post-pandemic much sooner than the average heterosexual traveler.
The IGLTA survey provides an interesting point of comparison against the U.S. Travel Association’s MMGY Travel Intelligence “Travel Intentions Pulse Survey” (TIPS). When asked how likely they are to travel within the next six months, 50 percent of LGBT travelers in the IGLTA poll say they plan to take a trip, versus 36 percent of travelers in the TIPS survey. Whereas 56 percent of gay travelers expressed a willingness to travel domestically and 24 percent internationally, the numbers drop to 36 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in the TIPS survey. Travelers in the IGLTA poll feel comfortable traveling beginning this summer, with a slight preference for trips between September and October.
The Harris Poll, meanwhile, offers a similar picture. Noting that LGBTQ adults reported an average of 3.6 leisure trips in the past year, compared to 2.3 for non-LGBT adults, 28 percent of LGBT participants said they would travel between May and August, and 51 percent before the end of 2020 (compared to 21 percent and 46 percent, respectively, for heterosexual travelers). LGBTQ respondents also reported feeling more comfortable with traveling to a US destination (64 percent, vs. 58 percent non-LGBT), flying (43 percent, vs. 35 percent non-LGBT), staying in a hotel (59 percent, vs. 50 percent non-LGBT), traveling to Europe (35 percent, vs. 28 percent non-LGBT), and even taking a cruise (31 percent vs. 23 percent non-LGBT).
Tom Carpenter, co-owner of Huckleberry Travel, says, “The industry thinks that everybody’s going to want to go to national parks, and domestic travel will be the first thing to bounce back, but that’s not what we’re finding.” Noting that he’s had several inquiries for travel in late 2020, he says, “For 2021, [LGBT travelers] are looking for the big bucket-list trips. They’re saying, ‘We were going to go to Hawaii, but now we’re thinking about an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora.’ Or ‘We want to go on safari in Africa.’”
What Travelers Need to Feel Safe
While travel experts cite some tourism-related similarities between the Covid-19 crisis and the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 economic crash, most agree that the protracted nature of the pandemic makes it feel different. Travel ground to a halt for a few weeks in the United States following the terrorist attacks, but “This felt like the world shut down over the course of a few weeks,” says Duncan Greenfield-Turk, chief travel designer of @luxurylondonguy.
Now that we’re emerging from almost three months of self-isolation, LGBTQ travelers haven’t changed their minds about vacationing. “Nearly half (46 percent) of respondents said they would not change the types of destinations they choose to visit after the coronavirus situation is resolved, reflecting a high degree of destination loyalty amid the uncertainty,” John Tanzella, president and CEO of IGLTA, says. “We know LGBTQ+ travelers to be very brand loyal, but Covid-19 is unlike any previous crises, so we weren’t sure how it would impact this particular question.”
For Brandon Foster, the Disney vacation travel agent behind Magic Lamp Vacations, the impact has been minimal. Customer inquiries never really stopped for him, mainly because his clients are used to booking their Disney or Universal Studios trips a year or more in advance. For those who have had to reschedule summer trips, expectations have shifted. “They want to know how have safety measures been put in place, and how will the Disney experience change because of it?” he explains. “In the fall, will there still be temperature checks but not masks? Will there be more shows and fireworks? Those are the kinds of things they really want to know.”
Attention to safety goes double for cruises, which have sustained one of the hardest hits to the image of the entire tourism industry, thanks to the high-profile cases of Covid-19 spread aboard large passenger liners.
Sofía Fierro is the sales coordinator for Royal Galapagos, which owns a fleet of five luxury yachts that accommodate 16 to 20 people. Thanks to the remote nature of the Galapagos, she’s still receiving customer inquiries. “Many people want to know how good the medical resources are in the area, our social distancing rules, how meals are going to work, and how the ship teams will work with Zodiacs to take them from the yachts to the islands to go on expeditions.” This has led to a variety of new safety protocols, from temperature checks to rapid tests and passenger transport. “We’re training our staff to pay attention to symptoms and manage problems early, and take care of a person if they fall ill,” Fierro says.
With airlines already seeing a backlash against packing planes and not enforcing the wearing of masks on board, the question of individual health-protocol standardization becomes problematic for destinations and agencies that aren’t as conscientious as Royal Galapagos. Greenfield-Turk says, “There’s too much misinformation as to what is and isn’t required. There needs to be clarity on the procedures.”
He’s one of a growing chorus who would like to see the formation of a governing body for cleaning standards. “A lot of hotels are coming up with these fantastic new cleaning routines,” Greenfield-Turk says. “It raises the question, Why weren’t you doing these before? And how are you benchmarking them? What’s considered a three-star in the UK is not a three-star in Egypt.”
As for those often-maligned cruises? Carpenter says, “It might be a hurdle for those new to cruising, but in general, people who were okay with cruising before are still okay with cruising. They’re tending more toward expedition or luxury cruises to a really exciting destination, with an overnight in port.”
Why are LGBTQ Travelers More Resilient?
Some tourism experts have theorized that LGBTQ travelers are more flexible in the face of global crises because they often don’t have children, and thus have more disposable income. And this may be a driving factor for travelers in the 50-and-up demographic. But a 2019 LGBTQ Family Building Survey found a significant narrowing of the gap between adults of child-bearing age, with 48 percent of LGBTQ millennials in the process of planning or actively growing their families, compared to 55 percent of their non-LGBTQ peers.
So what really makes LGBTQ travelers more resilient? First, they’re more acutely aware of safety when they travel. Carpenter has helped clients work through a number of concerns that are specific to LGBTQ travelers, from safe travel in places such as Dubai, where homosexuality may be punishable by death; the implications of travel documents that don’t accurately reflect the gender of a trans or nonbinary traveler; and even the ability to share a hotel bed in more conservative cultures. For them, the pandemic becomes just one more item on a checklist to be conscious of while traveling.
“For straight people who’ve never given a second thought to safety or security—whether it’s been verified, vetted, sanitary, safe—now all of a sudden the rest of the world has caught up to how gay people think about travel,” Carpenter says.
Other tourism professionals believe the phenomenon has deeper roots. “I think the LGBT community are people who have their entire life dealt with limiting beliefs others have imposed on them,” Foster says. “We’ve overcome so much that we are more resilient in a lot of respects. All the obstacles and hurdles we’ve overcome allow us to get back to loving life quicker.”
Tanzella adds, “Travel really feels like part of our DNA in many ways—the need to seek out others like us and find welcoming places to spend our time.” It’s what Greg Hammam, owner of scuba company Undersea Expeditions, describes as “an openness, a desire to experience other cultures that may be similar or very different from our own.”
Herb takes it one step further. “When you’re a gay person and you have to come out to yourself, family, friends, coworkers, it’s a continual process. We’ve already gone through something that’s look down on by society, where you’ll be discriminated against. After doing that, you’re much more undaunted. As gay travelers, we seek that connection with people in other countries, because we celebrate our own diversity and make it a positive in our own lives.”