Precious Human Rights

The Significance of LGBTQI* Tourism to the Global South

Lea Thin
Bunte Surfboards an einer Mauer
© Abigail Lynn on Unsplash

Rika Jean-Francois is in charge of Corporate Social Responsibility at the International Tourism Market ITB Berlin. At the same time, she is part of the Board of Directors of the Foundation of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) and promotes the observance of LGBTQI* rights in sustainable tourism. On behalf of Tourism Watch, Lea Thin talked to her about the importance of LGBTQI* tourism to countries of the Global South:

Tourism Watch: Ms. Jean-Francois, tourism is a significant sector to foster economic and social development in the Global South. How have offers for LGBTQI* travel evolved in these countries?

Rika Jean-Francois: The LGBTQI* travel segment is economically of huge importance. Of course, the countries of the Global South are aware of that, too. Worldwide, travel expenses of the LGBTQI* community are estimated as high as 180 billion US-Dollars every year. Countries are vying for a piece of the action, even if they have restrictive conditions to resident homosexuals and transsexuals. This is why more and more countries have overcome barriers against LGBTQI* tourism. However, there are still many countries where gays and lesbians are persecuted and/or discriminated against. Therefore, I see it as a very important task to provide especially tourism providers from these destinations with information on LGBTQI*. I am convinced – and important tourism associations such as the IGLTA or the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) agree - that tourism can open doors for human rights! The sole presence of the LGBTQI* community in repressive countries is gaining more visibility and acceptance worldwide by overcoming fears of contact. Time and again it shows that contact between different people is the basis to reduce prejudice and stop discrimination. At ITB for example, the LGBT Travel Pavilion once stood right next to the Russian booth. People from both sides eyed each other suspiciously in the beginning. In the end, everyone drank coffee together and chatted. That's how it works: step by step.

Tourism Watch: What is the difference between LGBTQI* travel agencies and conventional tour operators?

Rika Jean-Francois: Basically, the same principles apply. Of course, a sustainable approach is desirable. The tour operator must take a closer look at the value chain of a journey and ensure that all services are gay-friendly - from the taxi service to the hotel to the city guide. Travellers should not have to pretend or hide on their precious vacation days. No one should feel like they secretly have to push together twin beds in the hotel room. What’s also important is that LGBTQI* tourists are honestly welcomed and that the friendliness is authentic. They don’t want to serve as a fig-leaf that covers homophobia just to make the pink bonanza happen. At the same time, security concerns still play a major role for homosexuals and transsexuals when planning a journey. For LGBTQI* tour agencies this means they have to gather additional information, for example how gay-friendly individual countries, regions and neighbourhoods are. Guests must be able to fully trust their tour operators in terms of safety. Nevertheless, there are limitations: If, for instance, a country doesn’t allow heterosexual couples to kiss in public, LGBTQI* travellers must respect this rule as well. Tourists have to respect local customs.

Tourism Watch: Is the collective term LGBTQI* even suitable to the very different groups when traveling?

Rika Jean-Francois: People who define themselves as LGBTQI* are not a homogeneous group at all but very different. The long abbreviation already suggests that. And tour agencies know that, too. Most are specialized to a high degree to serve the various preferences of the individual groups behind the LGBTQI* term. For example, lesbian women travel more frequently into nature while party tourism is much more popular for gay men. Many operators offer short trips to events such as the Christopher Street Day or other PRIDE parades. As marriage is now legal for LGBTQI* in more and more countries, wedding and honeymoon tourism is increasingly playing a role. At the same time, culture is a big issue for all LGBTQI* travellers in general.

Tourism Watch: Homosexuality still is prosecuted in Malaysia, ITB’s official partner country in 2019. Malaysia's tourism minister has made a homophobic public statement prior to the Berlin trade show. How does ITB deal with such obvious human rights violations?

Rika Jean-Francois: Such statements are a huge problem. We knew in advance that Malaysia is difficult in terms of LGBTQI*. Nevertheless, as ITB is not an exclusive LGBT tourism fair, we endeavour to offer a platform to all travel destinations. However, this does not imply we leave statements like this uncommented. On the contrary, ITB is very clear and decisive against all forms of human rights violations. We have discussed the topic openly on a panel and invited, among others, a refugee transsexual from Malaysia. I don’t think excluding repressive countries from ITB helps LGBTQI* people – to the contrary. Right after the statement of the minister, LGBTQI* activists demonstrated for their rights in Kuala Lumpur. That would not have been possible without the public attention Malaysia was holding due to ITB. By including all countries, ITB achieves to address issues like this in public and raises awareness. People living in those holiday destinations are benefitting much more from this attention than if we just looked the other way.

Lea Thin is a Berlin-based geographer and journalist. In her work she focuses on issues around sustainability, gender, climate and development policy.

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