Travelling with pride: how the travel industry is embracing LGBTQ+ travellers

From same-sex honeymoons to bespoke operators, the world of LGBTQ+ travel has changed enormously in recent decades. But as the industry recovers from the pandemic, how is it re-embracing this burgeoning community of travellers, and what more can it do?

A crossroads in the Castro District of San Francisco, one of the oldest gay districts in the US.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Connor McGovern
Published 19 Feb 2022, 10:12 GMT

It’s well after midnight, and Madrid’s Plaza de Chueca has never been busier. Good-timers swirl around the busy, lamplit square: young, old, high heels, sandals, freshly pressed shirts and plenty of bare flesh. This is the fizzing, thumping heart of the Spanish capital’s gay district — a playground, a living room, whatever you want it to be — and the warm air quivers with the sound of voices. But it’s not just Spanish you can hear — there’s English, Irish, German, Italian and a smattering of Brazilian, too.

“I think travel is in our DNA,” says John Tanzella, president of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA). “The very nature of being LGBTQ+ means there’s an open-mindedness and desire to see the world.”

There are few better places to see that open-mindedness in action than Madrid. Progressive laws and largely liberal attitudes within Spain have made it a safe haven for LGBTQ+ travellers, who have long flocked to the country’s cities, coasts and islands. “This is a loyal community that loves to travel multiple times a year and spends a lot every time. Suddenly it’s clear why companies want to reach us,” says Tanzella.

The rewards can be lucrative: research by corporate advisory and asset management company LGBT Capital estimates that the sector has a global spending power of $3.9 trillion (£2.9 trillion). There’s even a name for it — the ‘pink pound’ — but the experiences offered in return don’t always measure up. Simon Mayle is the event director of Proud Experiences, a convention for LGBTQ+ travel businesses, cites a lack of attention to these customers as a motivation for creating the event. “All too often, travellers pay hundreds a night, only to have a poor experience,” he explains. “The bar is often simply too low.” Mayle cites his-and-her slippers in bathrooms and awkward conversations about beds at check-in as examples. Some couples, he adds, are even turned away altogether.

Some people may scratch their heads as to as to why hospitality sees the need to tailor service towards heterosexual pairings at all — after all, most travellers are looking for the same things. A survey last year by the IGLTA found that the vast majority of LGBTQ+ travellers cited ‘exploration’ and ‘relaxation’ as the main motivations for travel, which, as Tanzella points out, is the same for all other groups. Furthermore, Visit Britain’s own research concluded that ‘historical attractions’ and ‘scenic beauty’ were the greatest draws for US and Canadian LGBTQ+ travellers visiting the UK — factors often cited by travellers of all sexualities.

But for all the common ground, the travel experience itself can be very different for the LGBTQ+ community: when and where to show affection, laws around same-sex activity, and gender-related issues concerning passports, to name but a few. Understanding these nuances was key for Darren Burn when he founded Out of Office, a tailor-made luxury LGBTQ+ travel company, in 2016. “One day, there might not be a need for companies like ours,” he says, “but the reality is that it’s just not always straightforward for our customers.”

An in-depth knowledge of LGBTQ+-related issues gives companies such as Out of Office an advantage, says Burn — a greater awareness of cultural nuances or how welcoming a hotel is towards same-sex couples, for example. “People come to us because they know they can raise any concerns and can have an open conversation from the get-go,” he explains.

Mayle agrees, saying that any travellers feeling hesitant would do well to go to a trusted provider that thoroughly understands the market. In 2010, Preferred Hotels & Resorts created the Preferred Pride programme — a collection of hotels that puts the experience of LGBTQ+ travellers front and centre. For Rick Stiffler, senior vice president of sales-leisure, it was partly driven by a desire to see more initiative in the hotel world. He believed too few brands were making real efforts when it came to inclusivity. “We wanted our hotels to really engage with the community, both locally and internationally,” he says. “If they truly want this business, then they need to show it.”

The hotels, which span destinations as diverse as Arizona and Andorra, undergo companywide training to offer a welcoming experience across the board. Having all staff on the same page is crucial, he says, from concierges being able to recommend a local gay bar, or management dealing with a complaint about a same-sex couple holding hands. Initiatives like these also help public perception. “If a hotel is inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, then it’s going to be inclusive of everyone, and that matters.”

The view over Barcelona from Bunkers del Carmel. Spain has long been viewed as one of ...

The view over Barcelona from Bunkers del Carmel. Spain has long been viewed as one of the world's most welcoming LGBTQ+ destinations.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s a similar story for Nicolas Streff, global brand & corporate communications director at luxury hospitality brand Belmond. Inclusivity should be fundamental to any sector, he says — describing it as a question of “how we do it, not why”. One way in which it can be done has been demonstrated by Belmond, whose LGBTQ+ advisory board (made up of travel industry experts) has helped the company deliver a more inclusive customer experience, including rolling out gender-neutral guest forms and a special charter of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for LGBTQ+ travellers this autumn. But Streff says it’s an ever-expanding mandate. “We’re always looking at how we can adapt and improve,” he says. “Laws are constantly changing around the world, and so brands need to evolve, too.”

Seeing the spectrum

It’s no understatement to say cultural attitudes have changed over the past century. Improved understanding and more inclusive services have helped to give the LGBTQ+ community more confidence when travelling, but not everything has quite caught up with the times.

A study by Getty Images last year concluded that LGBTQ+ people are ‘grossly underrepresented in media’ and often depicted with ‘stereotypical imagery’. A quick Google image search using the words ‘gay travel’ throws up no shortage of well-toned, beach-loving, predominantly male couples. For a community defined by its diversity, the online reality can still feel a little one-dimensional.

But some countries have already taken note: in 2013, Thailand launched its ‘Go Thai. Be Free’ campaign, with a comprehensive list of experiences, hotels and destination guides geared towards LGBTQ+ travellers, featuring people of all colours and orientations. Malta, meanwhile, has positioned itself as a one of Europe’s most welcoming destinations through more inclusive marketing, in step with improved equality laws within the country.

“Things are gradually improving,” says Stiffler. He believes there’s been a genuine shift in travel to reflect an audience that’s more eclectic than ever, including same-sex-parented families and trans and non-binary travellers. “Adverts should look like real people in the community, not just two models posing on a beach,” he explains.

That feeling of being represented can’t be understated, according to Jill Cruse. “There’s always been a kind of safety in numbers with this community,” she says. “It’s reassuring to go knowing you’ll feel welcome.”

Cruse is the vice president of guest experience at Olivia Travel, an operator based in San Francisco with a mostly lesbian clientele. She’s enthusiastic about the kinship that comes from the company’s group trips, which, she says, have even more value after two years of social isolation. She believes LGBTQ+ travellers are seeing the benefit of being among like-minded people again. “It means you’re free to be yourself, and, really, there’s nothing like feeling accepted.”

It’s not only the customer that’s changed, but also the type of trip. According to Burn, well-established LGBTQ+ destinations such as Thailand, Gran Canaria and Ibiza are still popular, but he’s also seeing travellers demonstrating their confidence with more adventurous trips, too. “We’re seeing more and more solo travellers in the market, too; single gay men looking to join a epic group hikes in Machu Picchu, for instance,” he says.

However attractive these destinations may be, it’s not a level playing field. Equality tracker Equaldex lists over 70 countries as having homophobic laws, several of them even enforcing capital punishment for same-sex activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, travellers remain cautious: a 2021 survey by gay men’s magazine Attitude found that 82% of LGBTQ+ travellers consider a destination’s laws before travelling, and that threequarters ruled out destinations where homosexuality is illegal. But being open-minded can be beneficial, says Burn. “It’s worth remembering that these countries have gay citizens, too,” he says. “Tourism can show people that, really, we’re no different after all.”

The benefits of welcoming diverse, broad-minded travellers has paid off for some destinations. The likes of Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro, says Mayle, have woken up to not just the financial rewards of an inclusive approach, but also the more human benefits, too. “LGBTQ+ people are, by nature, welcoming and open people,” he says. “Plus, many of us have a big network of like-minded people back home.”

Wat Arun temple, Bangkok. Thailand has marketed itself as a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ travellers.

Wat Arun temple, Bangkok. Thailand has marketed itself as a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ travellers.

Photograph by Getty Images

Walking the walk

While it’s understandable that travellers may not want to go somewhere they can’t be themselves, Tanzella points out that scores of destinations are off-limits as a result. “A lot of nations that have progressive laws today had very different laws a decade ago,” he says, encouraging travellers to do their research before travel but not to dismiss destinations altogether purely based on politics.

Any legislative change begins at the top, of course, but certain governments pose a challenge for the industry. In these cases, companies looking to directly advertise to gay, lesbian or trans travellers can rarely do so overtly. Burn argues that such destinations — which often happily take bookings from LGBTQ+ travellers — need to put their money where their mouth is. “A lot of them rely on the money of these travellers, but are they making inroads with getting laws changed?” he asks. “It’s not fair to have one rule for citizens and another for visitors.”

Despite this, there’s been tentative progress in countries that, until recently, lagged well behind in terms of equality.

In 2019, the Botswana High Court ruled in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, and similar moves have been made in the Seychelles, Mozambique and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years. Change takes time, says Cruse, claiming that some destinations, such as the Bahamas, were hesitant about welcoming a lesbian cruise in the early 1990s. “Once we [the company] came into the market, people got to know us and realised we were no different, things started to change.”

If government support isn’t always a given, then how else to improve the landscape for LGBTQ+ travellers? Mayle believes it isn’t too late for companies looking to make a positive change, but the key is doing it with purpose and authenticity. Tanzella agrees, saying that lip service is no longer enough to convince travellers that the industry cares. “If you claim to appreciate diversity, but your board of directors looks the same, you’re not walking the walk,” he says. “You need to really mean what you’re doing.”

Streff says travellers today are savvy, and that a rainbow sticker in the window is no bad thing but needs to go much further. “Diversity is something that needs to be reflected behind the scenes, too, so consumers know it’s genuine,” he says.

Authenticity has worked for Madrid, at least. Of course, there are rainbow flags and stickers aplenty, but it’s the progress that counts most: this is the capital of a country where same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in 2005 — the third country in the world to do so after the Netherlands and Belgium. Perhaps it’s proof that if you show the world you’re open-minded, people will come.

Other nations might want to take note: after all, where LGBTQ+ travellers go, others follow. “It happened with Ibiza, and now we’re seeing it with Mykonos — suddenly everyone’s going,” says Burn. “It’s almost a question of ‘where will the gays go next?’”

Five cities to watch

Brighton & Hove
It’s almost been three, pandemic-beleaguered years since the city last hosted a Pride event, but this summer sees the return of the country’s biggest (and arguably best) Pride celebration. A weekend chock-full of concerts, parades, street parties, cabaret and even a dog show will make up the delayed 30th anniversary celebrations. 5-7 August. 

While attitudes in Serbia remain mixed, laws have improved considerably over the past decade. Openly gay prime minister Ana Brnabić took office in 2016, and this year the city will host Europride, the continent’s biggest Pride festival. Previous events in the city have faced intense hostility, so this is a watershed moment for the country’s LGBTQ+ community. 12-18 September. 

In December, Canada followed the likes of Brazil, Germany and Malta in banning the controversial practice of conversion therapy — another sign of the country’s progressive stance on equality. Multicultural Toronto is the nexus of the country’s LGBTQ+ scene — set to come alive for a month of eclectic Pride celebrations in June.

Malta topped the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index for a sixth consecutive year in 2021. The metric analyses the equality policies of 49 European countries and found that open-minded Malta is streets ahead of many of its neighbours, with recent amendments including an updated policy for LGBTQ+ refugee claims. 

The cosmopolitan Australian city takes up the mantle as host of World Pride in February 2023. This will be the first time the event has been held in the Southern Hemisphere, so expect a celebratory 17- day programme of Pride marches, beach parties, conferences and a First Nations gala concert. 17 February to 5 March 2023. 

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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