Visitors naturally feel most comfortable where their hosts are welcoming and tolerant. Few nations have been as historically open to others as the Thais. That’s why in a polarising world, easy-going Thailand proves so popular with both Arabs and Israelis, traditionalists and hedonists, straights and gays. Thailand got its huge gay visitor-base without even trying, through word-of-mouth, private enterprise and by just being itself.
For over a decade, wised-up Asian websites have pioneered the promotion of Thailand to gays, who number ten per cent of any population, yet 15% per cent of all tourists. Now there’s more need for Thailand to cultivate the custom of this trend-setting sector, which prizes high value holidays from spas to eco adventure.
Corporations and world cities no longer find it prudent to be prudish; they risk losing market share to those that liberalise. Tourist boards hype Sydney’s Mardi Gras, ‘Gayfriendly Germany’ or Manchester’s ‘Home of Queer As Folk’. One official UK booklet asks, “Isn’t it time you came out… to Britain?”
LOYAL LONG-STAY VISITORS
Market research reveals that gays express preference and loyalty to brands that publicly associate with them, whether airlines, cars or countries. “What might seem a very brave step to make isn’t that brave, really,” says London ad agency Quiet Storm as quoted by Time magazine. It notes that compared to straights, gays are on average “more affluent, more interested in style and brands, and travel more.” And with same-sex marriage growing, a new honeymoon niche will benefit resorts that let two men or two women book a bridal suite.
In the past, social taboos had inhibited tourism policy from marketing gay attractions. Now an official rethinking of this issue sees it as a global trend that creates tangible benefits for countries that embrace it.
The country’s reputation results in many gays becoming repeat and long-stay visitors. Gay-friendliness also over-rides factors that deter others, like SARS, bird flu or unrest. “Gays are more willing to part with their last baht here than a family is,” argues a Bangkok hotelier. “Even if they can’t really afford it, they will still come on a budget, just so they can come.”
GAY DOLLAR OUTSTRIPS MOST NATIONAL ECONOMIES
With their generally higher income, education and tastes for luxuries repeatedly proven in research, gays represent a grade-A consumer category. Same-sex couples earn proportionately even more, and without children cramping their disposable income.
At a staggering $610 billion, earnings by US gays and lesbians are more than three times greater than Thailand’s entire GDP. As Time noted, the UK fits a widespread pattern in that on average, gays earn 40% more and lesbians 25% more than straights. Of their total $130 billion earnings, gay Britons alone spend $5.6 billion a year on travel. That’s a lot of room service, facials and champagne brunches.
“Who actually pays for the deluxe suites at top hotels? It’s the gays!” exclaims the general manager of a Bangkok hotel seventy per cent frequented by followers of the rainbow-flag. Apply ‘gaydar’ to Bangkok’s five-star lobbies and you can see his point. Beyond room, restaurant and spa bookings, gays always mean business. Needless to say, Thailand’s fashion and design industries would wilt without gay sway over both production and purchasing.
Insiders admit that some buyers would skip Thai furnishing fairs were it not for the country’s R&R appeal to décor queens. And just count the clutches of pretty boys from elsewhere in Asia spending liberated weekends in Bangkok’s bars and boutiques. Many a gay Westerner exports Thai goods just so they can spend chunks of the year here, sourcing products and feeling sabai (relaxed).
PRIVATE FREEDOM, PUBLIC DISCRETION
“There’s not much of a gay movement in Thailand because there’s basically nothing to move against,” cooed the PlanetOut Gay Travel Awards in which Bangkok was the 2006 runner-up as Best International Destination. But foreigners wowed by the politeness, exoticism and diverse gay infrastructure often mistake tolerance for full acceptance. Like any personal matter in Thai society, private freedom comes at the cost of public discretion. Families often won’t discuss sexuality even if they suspect an offspring’s orientation, yet would never disown them. Thanks to that discretion, gays can rise high in society.
BANGKOK’S SOPHISTICATED SCENE
Just as Thailand has officially been shy about its gay appeal, queer venues tend to fringe fashionable locales so closets can enter unnoticed. Online portals like Utopia, Dreaded Ned’s and Fridae carry listings, as do free bilingual maps and magazines like Variety, Max, Sticky Rice, Thai Puen and PluGuide.
In downtown Silom Road, Sois 2, 2/1 and 4 brim with international style bars, restaurants, cafés, galleries, spas, clubs and shops, both male and mixed. Upmarket venues like Bed Supperclub have chic Pink Sunday parties and hosts Gyent, an elite gay club that runs trips, parties and other activities. Royal City Avenue now has a women-only club, Zeta. Asian visitors also find camaraderie in trendy Thai-Thai gay bar areas at Soi Sarasin, Kamphaengphet Road, Lad Prao and Ramkhamhaeng. As with their straight equivalents, host bars, escort services and massage parlours cater far more for locals, but are hidden in the suburbs, unlike the minority for tourists visible around Patpong and Sukhumvit.
Sophisticated gay venues are also flourishing in the provinces. These include male-oriented hotels and tours, spas and bars. Pattaya is known for katoey (transvestite/’ladyboy’) cabarets, bars at Pattayaland Soi 3 and a stretch of Jomtien Beach favoured by gays. Phuket’s gay enclave centres on the Paradise Centre in Patong, while a new scene is developing at Chaweng on Ko Samui. Chiang Mai’s venues lag behind the city’s popularity among aesthetes appreciating the gentle Lanna culture.
REDEFINING GAY TOURISM
Capitalising further on gay tourism requires deeper consideration. Terms like homosexual (and its Thai equivalents) lead many to wrongly classify gayness solely by sexuality. Successful gay destinations recognise a broader definition that encompasses a camp sensibility, discerning tastes, community solidarity, and an outsider’s acute alertness to injustice.
Thailand is open to such values, albeit passively. Countries with the longest chapters in the Spartacus global guidebook cater to these needs proactively through help lines, sexual health provision, police training, anti-discrimination laws and hosting pride festivals.
Despite the genuine welcome to people of all kinds, taboos and unfamiliarity can spur false presumptions. Thais largely accept katoeys, but there’s less understanding of butch toms (women partnering ladylike dees) or straight-acting men-who-like-men. Some confuse saunas with prostitution despite them being the opposite: cheap yet opulent refuges where men can socialise specifically without buying a partner. Most problematic is inaccurate equating of tourism for gays with the bogeyword ‘sex tourism’.
The catch-all term ‘sex tourism’ unleashes defensive emotions that can fuel a hysterical conflation of innocuous holiday romance with disturbing but marginal instances of exploitation. Most criticism seems reserved for the many elderly tourists finding Thai hospitality preferable to the ageism back home. As one Pattaya restaurateur remarks, “Thais are very nice to the older generation, whereas in Europe and America they think old people at nightclubs are almost immoral.” The nascent global trend in health-assisted housing for gay retirees will surely boom in Thailand.
Of course, travel has always led to cross-cultural relationships, proven by how few degrees of genetic separation relate all humanity. Provincial governors in Isaan encourage the economic benefits of non-Thai spouses. Inward investment from Thai-foreign gay partnerships is just as profound. Travel agents report high visitation to Isaan by gay tourists and long-term support of families there.
Fortunately, reputable gay travel operators observe professional ethics, avoid sleaze, and earn endorsement from organizations like ILGTA (International Lesbian & Gay Travel Association). By the same token, destinations not meeting globalised gay standards can lose income overnight.
When Singapore liberalized its laws to tempt the lucrative new niche of nightlife tourism – which overlaps gay tourism – it lured custom from Bangkok during its social order crackdown. But when Singapore banned the massive gay Nation festival, post-tsunami Phuket welcomed Nation partygoers. According to Nation organizers Fridae.com, the last Singapore party generated US$5.8 million. Now Thailand gets that revenue. “We were 100 percent full,” Phuket’s Crowne Plaza hotel spokesman told Bloomberg News. “There are a lot of high-end gay tourists, and I think Asia-Pacific slowly but surely is discovering this.”
ONE GAY DAY
In growing its gay market share, Thailand doesn’t need to institute attractions, rather to facilitate conducive conditions, so that unwary organizations don’t inadvertently alienate the market. Nightlife rules and police briefings are two examples, festivals another. Gay magnets from Sydney and San Francisco to Berlin and Brighton base marketing around pride parades, which the wider public can enjoy. Pattaya and Patong officially support their gay parades with big success. However, Bangkok Pride is perennially hampered by lack of consensus, so organisers baulk at investing more in floats and festivities.
A delicate balance must be struck. Inappropriate promotion could ironically endanger qualities that gays prize in Thailand: privacy and sensitivity. Gays delight in the alternative character of their subculture, a cachet lost in even positive media glare. Constantly singled out at home – whether for oppression or commercialization – gays relish time spent in Thailand without intrusion or labelling, ensuring a more liberating and carefree holiday than the majority population would imagine.
If Thailand’s deserves its fame as a “gay paradise”, it’s because to many gays “paradise” is being treated normally.