A recent survey’s findings that a quarter of LGBT travellers hide their sexuality while on holiday summed up the quandary for many globe-trotters in the community. On the one hand, you’d like to explore the world however you want, rather than simply honing in on LGBT scenes abroad. But on the other, you can feel obliged to “pass” as non-LGBT when holidaying outside of, say, known LGBT nightlife areas or beaches.
And it seems these instincts are not without foundation – the same survey, conducted by Virgin Holidays earlier this month, also found more than one in three LGBT travellers had experienced discrimination while on holiday.
So, if you’re LGBT, don’t particularly want to spend your holiday just in LGBT hotspots, but don’t want to hide who you are either – where are the best places to go?
For that answer, we turned to Darren Burn, founder of online travel agency OutOfOffice.com, which launched last year with a specialist focus on LGBT travellers. Burn was inspired to set up the company after a bad experience when on holiday in Egypt with his then boyfriend. “I realised there should be no reason I shouldn’t travel anywhere in the world as long as I was doing it with the right knowledge,” he told The Independent.
“We’ve had some people tell us we shouldn’t be sending people to countries where it’s illegal to be gay,” he added. “We like to think we’re a little more progressive than that. The LGBT community has long been used to dealing with discrimination and is mindful of the potential pitfalls. We should not be boycotting countries where it’s illegal to be gay.”
Jamie Tabberer, travel editor at Gay Star News, agreed it was a tricky topic. “Our readers are polarised on travel to LGBTI-unfriendly countries,” he told The Independent.
“I respect those who boycott countries where it’s illegal to be gay, or where LGBTI rights records are unfavourable, whether it’s for safety or ethical reasons.
“But I wouldn’t judge anyone for visiting those countries. Instead I encourage them to stay safe, don’t endanger LGBTI locals, and research the destination before departure.”
Tabberer added that travel to such countries could even lead to progress and change, but qualified: “Remember, while we can drop in and out, the people who live there can’t. So if you’re going to enjoy a holiday there, support the rights of LGBTI people in that country in whatever way you think appropriate. That may include lobbying their government or ours, donating to good causes, posting on social media or making new friends there.”
Burn also said that while, ultimately, the goal should be to change the law in those countries, “We need to be mindful that our customers want to travel to these places, and so to enable them to do so safely is far more important than telling them they shouldn’t or can’t travel to a destination. I for one want to see as much of the world as possible and our clients do too.”
The key, Burns argued, was to be “honest and upfront with each customer”, which he said he worried some other travel agencies aren’t: “Other companies – and we know because we’ve mystery shopped them – can provide you with inaccurate advice which is in some cases, quite frankly, dangerous.” His recommendations come with a caveat: while on the whole these destinations are safe, you would be safer being “discrete” in some situations, such as at the airport.
The options for transgender travellers can be even slimmer, but this also seems to be improving, Burn claimed, revealing that a cruise for transgender passengers will be launching next year. “As with gay rights, each country has different attitudes towards trans travellers and those are evolving over time,” he said. “We will work to ensure that we choose the most appropriate guides, hotels and suppliers for our customers.”
With all this in mind, here are the top holiday destinations, as chosen by OutOfOffice, for LGBT travellers right now.
Indonesia isn’t exactly known for being LGBT-friendly – see this week’s case of a gay couple facing prosecution for “obscenity and pornography” after posting a picture of themselves kissing on Facebook – but homosexuality isn’t actually illegal in the country. And according to OutOfOffice, “The majority of hotels in Seminyak are extremely LGBT-friendly.” This beach resort in south Bali might be one of the less traditional-feeling places on the island – all busy boutiques and bars – but it makes a good base and there are plenty of paradise beaches to choose from. Plus you’re never too far from views of gorgeous green rice fields and top dive spots.
Cape Town, South Africa
As OutOfOffice admits, “When people hear the word ‘Africa’, LGBT-friendly definitely doesn’t spring to mind.” But South Africa was in fact the fifth country in the world – and the first (and only) country in Africa – to legalise gay marriage. Same-sex couples can adopt children, and have full access to IVF treatments. Probably the city LGBT travellers can feel most comfortable in here is Cape Town – known as “the gay capital of Africa” – though the company adds that “at a game reserve same-sex couples should be welcomed like any other guests”. Handily, South Africa has absolutely loads to offer – safari, city, sun-and-sea and wine breaks – so this is a particularly great choice for travellers.
Many LGBT couples may feel they have to rule out a romantic break in the Maldives, given that its hundreds of islands adhere to strict Islamic laws criminalising homosexuality. In fact, it’s even starker than that – homosexuality here is punishable by death. But as OutOfOffice says, “Holding hands in the Maldives for a gay couple on arrival at the airport isn’t a sensible idea. But if you were to do so in the comfort and privacy of your resort, you are unlikely to encounter any major issues.”
The company works with specific luxury resorts that it knows to be LGBT-friendly – resorts they “know and trust”. “Plenty of gay couples travel to the Maldives each and every year and as with all destinations, it’s about empowering yourself with the knowledge to make informed decisions before you go,” OutOfOffice blogger Luke Jackson said. “Clearly no one can license for other guests or an isolated incident… But if you’re a gay couple on holiday in the Maldives then you can be confident of a warm welcome.”
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalise gay marriage and in 2010 a law was passed allowing same-sex couples to adopt a child. The capital, Buenos Aires, hosts a huge Pride event every year in November, which attracts thousands of visitors. Renowned for its nightlife, there’s masses of history, culture and boutique shopping to explore too. Read The Independent’s recent guide to 48 hours in the city for more.
Iceland was the first country to have an openly gay prime minister and in June 2010, it legalised gay marriage. Since then, same-sex couples have had the same access to IVF treatment and adoption as heterosexual couples. It also just so happens to be one of Europe’s best travel destinations, offering natural wonders like geysers, glaciers, volcanoes and the Northern Lights alongside its modern, vibrant capital of Reykjavik. Find out how to spend the perfect weekend there with The Independent’s 48 hours guide.
We also asked OutOfOffice for destinations that were particularly welcoming of trans travellers. They chose the following.
According to OutOfOffice: “Sitges is very LGBT-friendly. It has a very inclusive feel, which is very comforting and relaxing – exactly how you want to feel when you are on holiday.” The coastal, Catalonian town is known for its LGBT scene.
“Mykonos is the most cosmopolitan of the Greek Islands,” said Burn. “Long an LGBT haven, you’ll happily find families alongside gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. Hotels on the island have, over time, improved their staff training and the handful of LGBT bars are welcoming of all. You’ll also find a predominantly gay beach at Super Paradise which is a good and welcoming spot for transgender travellers too.”
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