LGBTQ+ Travel: How Far We’ve Come and Where We Go from Here 

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Our writer shares her experience travelling as a queer woman, and talks to experts from across the tourism industry about the past, present and future of LGBTQ+ travel.

“Does our host know we’re a couple?”   

As we approached our Airbnb, in rural Australia, I could feel knots forming in my stomach.  

“I’ve got a bad feeling, too,” my girlfriend replied. “But what can we do? We’ve already paid. Why don’t you stay in the car while I check in?”   

I never had to worry about this kind of thing before. I entered my first same‑sex relationship in my thirties, by which time I’d already travelled to more than 30 countries, including Guyana, where homosexuality is illegal. (It’s one of the 70 or so countries that criminalize same‑sex unions and the expression of transgender identity, with punishments ranging from prison time to the death penalty.) 

Before, my vacations could have been an advertisement on the side of a bus. You know the ones – a cisgender man and woman, almost always white, walking carefree on the beach. Contrast that to the last time I strolled along a beach with my girlfriend and a stranger told us we were “disgusting” and that we should leave “his” town.  

So, my fear at checking in at an Airbnb? Lived experience tells me it’s not entirely misplaced.  

March 22, 2022
A transgender couple sits together on a swing set, one of them hangs from the top and the other one sits on a swing.
   Photo: Discover Puerto Rico

How far we’ve come

For LGBTQ+ travellers, every time we register at a hotel or introduce ourselves to a tour group, we’re likely outing ourselves – or lying. Nearly one‑quarter of queer travellers try to camouflage their sexuality while on holiday, according to a recent survey by Virgin Holidays, a U.K.‑based tour operator. The same survey found that one‑third of LGBTQ+ travellers face discrimination – ranging from being stared at or laughed at to verbal abuse. 

Related: The Handmaid’s Tale Star Samira Wiley on Playing Queer Characters

Yet, despite these challenges, queer people are amongst the world’s most avid travellers. Around 86 percent of LGBTQ+ Canadians hold valid passports, compared to 65 percent of the overall population. We also use them. In a 2021 survey of more than 6,000 people, the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) found that LGBTQ+ travellers will be the most likely group of people to travel post pandemic, with 73 percent planning to take a major trip in the next year.

The queer travel market is valued at $12 billion in Canada and an estimated $218 billion worldwide. And to capture it, countless destinations, including Colombia, Israel and Brazil, are positioning themselves as LGBTQ+‑friendly places to travel. The state of Virginia, for example, cleverly plays on its 53‑year‑old slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” in a queer‑inclusive tourism marketing campaign, showcasing “lovers” as “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families, couples and friends.” Travel brands are also investing in LGBTQ+ inclusion. Disney, for example, hosts its own Pride event, complete with accompanying swag. (Fun fact: Mickey Mouse looks great in rainbow pants.) Then there’s the luxury SO/ hotel chain, which has unisex bathrooms in the lobbies and “His & His” and “Hers & Hers” amenities in guest rooms. 

Airlines, too, are making accommodations. In March 2019, United Airlines was the first to offer a non‑binary booking option (although it wasn’t until October 2021 that the United States joined countries like Canada, Argentina and Nepal in issuing its first passport with an “X” gender designation). Since then, most major airlines have followed suit, including Air Canada, which has also changed its onboard greeting from “ladies and gentlemen” to the more gender‑inclusive “everyone.”  

Related: Country Star Brandon Stansell on Coming Out and Going Home  

Even within adventure travel – an industry that’s long been dominated by white, straight men – operators have started launching LGBTQ+ travel groups. In 2022, Holiday River Expeditions – which runs group whitewater rafting trips in Utah, Colorado and Idaho – announced its expansion of LGBTQ+‑friendly travel itineraries. “Queers have been in nature for a long time, we just weren’t visible,” says Lauren Wood, Holiday River Expedition’s trip director, who identifies as queer, lesbian and non‑binary. They say the new LGBTQ+ exclusive itineraries are the result of better diversity in leadership positions and the growing number of safe spaces.  

A gay couple sitting together on the edge of a sailboat at the beach, with the ocean in the background.
   Photo: Discover Puerto Rico

Where we go from here   

But there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

When I call Rob Taylor – who blogs about his travels with his husband and two sons at 2TravelDads.com – he tells me it’s his anniversary. He’d been researching an excursion to celebrate, but all he could find was “very husband‑wife‑centric imagery.”  

“It’s easy to see when a travel brand is actually making the effort. Even though it’s 2022, for some reason there’s still a lack of LGBTQ+ imagery.”   

What’s just as damaging, is when tourism marketing imagery distills the diverse queer community into a stereotype: a shirtless, muscular, white gay male trope. “The LGBTQ+ community is not monolithic. As a middle‑aged lesbian, I am so different from a 21‑year‑old gender non‑conforming queer Black kid,” says Tanya Churchmuch, president of boutique travel, hospitality and LGBTQ+ PR firm MuchPR.  

For LGBTQ+ travel marketing to be effective, it needs to acknowledge intersectionality, like Destination Puerto Rico has done with its new “Live Out” campaign. Launching this year, it features a transgender family, lesbians and Black queer couples – all in its bid to become the “LGBTQ+ Capital of the Caribbean” and one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly places to travel.

Related: What’s Inside the Carry‑on Bag of Drag Queen Tynomi Banks?  

Unfortunately, pinkwashing also remains prolific. It’s easy to slap a rainbow on a website during Pride month. What’s harder is genuinely understanding and mitigating the specific travel challenges, risks and needs of the LGBTQ+ community, including the increased likelihood of discrimination and violence. Sixty‑five percent of queer Canadians and 75 percent of trans and gender non‑conforming Canadians cite safety as their top concern when travelling. 

This change needs to come from within, though.   

“The industry as a whole isn’t diverse enough,” says Danny Guerrero, founder of marketing firm The Culturist Group, who works with travel brands to improve their diversity. “How do we start to make a case [for LGBTQ+‑inclusive policies and marketing] when the people running the show don’t understand?”  

That’s why throughout 2020 and 2021, Tourism HR Canada, a national organization working to address labour market issues in the tourism sector, worked with Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) to deliver 81 free workshops focused on creating more LGBTQ+ inclusive workplaces within the tourism and hospitality industry. And in December 2021, the Canadian government announced $67 million in funding to support Canada’s tourism and hospitality sector – which will help support efforts to increase participation by groups who are underrepresented in the labour market, including LGBTQ+ Canadians. 

A couple standing together amongst the crowd at a Pride celebration, one of them goes to kiss the other on the cheek.
   Photo: Jana Sabeth

Related: We Paused and the Planet Noticed – How Do We Travel Now? (Hint: More Sustainably)  

The transformative power of LGBTQ+ travel 

But regardless of advances in marketing or in the diversity of tourism operators, there’s still that pesky issue of legality. Whether to boycott destinations based on human rights track records is particularly divisive, although the IGLTA is clear on their stance. “We don’t condone boycotts. It’s better to build a bridge,” says John Tanzella, president and CEO of IGLTA. “If you’re not visible [in a destination], nothing’s ever going to change.”  

Tanzella hits on an important point. Tourism can be transformative. It can also lead to social change, and ultimately to legislative change. (After all, destination marketing organizations are typically federally funded, meaning they represent the interests of governments.) At least that’s the hope in destinations like Thailand, where social activists have highlighted the country’s LGBTQ+ “Go Thai, Be Free” tourism campaign as hypocritical in contrast to the government’s recent failure to legalize same‑sex marriage.  

A tourism industry that’s more inclusive has benefits for all travellers – not just the LGBTQ+ ones, says Billy Kolber, co‑founder of HospitableMe, which educates brands and leads strategy on inclusive hospitality.

“No matter who we are, we all want to be treated with respect. We’re all looking for romance and escape and cultural immersion,” he says. “As we look at the industry’s promise to build back better after the pandemic, the guiding principle will be to build a more inclusive and welcoming tourism industry.”  

I, for one, want to believe that the future of tourism is one where inclusivity is second nature, safety is paramount for all, and where no one ever again has to hide in the car.