How to Sell LGBT Travel to the Caribbean

Brightly colored houses line the Handelskade in Willemstad, Curacao, widely considered the most LGBT-friendly island in the Caribbean.
Brightly colored houses line the Handelskade in Willemstad, Curacao, widely considered the most LGBT-friendly island in the Caribbean.

Focusing on the LGBT market could bring rich rewards for Caribbean islands and hoteliers, as well as for travel advisors seeking to expand their business. This multibillion-dollar sector has great and largely untapped potential.

"If the Caribbean wants to attract the LGBT community, they would be attracting almost an entirely new market to the region," David Paisley, the senior research director at Community Marketing and Insights, (CMI) tells us. “There is a real opportunity for business growth and every island will take a stance. Some want the market and some don't and that's a choice they need to make. For some, it makes sense and for others, it may not be a top priority."

What are the key travel needs and desires for this group, especially as it pertains to Caribbean tourism? Travel Agent delved into available research and spoke to industry experts to garner as much intelligence on the market as possible for those among our readers who would like to focus on the LGBT sector.

Safety Is an Issue

According to many experts, when an LGBT traveler is deciding whether a destination is safe or not, they are looking for general security as well as safety specifically related to this community. These clients strongly prefer to travel to destinations that they consider safe and do not have laws that discriminate against the residents and travelers of their community. According to a 2014 CMI study, however, 11 percent of respondents indicated that they are willing to travel to a country that has laws against LGBT people.

Paisley says this community overall tends to keep a close eye on how each island deals with the local LGBT population; if locals are reported as being treated unfairly, the overall perception is that it may not be a safe place to visit.

“The lack of safety of a destination is something we don’t tolerate,” says Paisley. “No one wants to feel like they can be killed or beat up. Although that rarely happens to tourists, it does happen to the locals. And there could be a line that is crossed that can affect the tourist.”

Sonesta Kura Hulanda Village & Spa is one of many Curacao hotels that are members of IGLTA.
Sonesta Kura Hulanda Village & Spa is one of many Curacao hotels that are members of IGLTA.

The $200 Billion Industry

LGBT travel trends and patterns in general were part of the program for the recently concluded Travel Industry Exchange in Orlando. A panel on the subject drew some of the highest attendance of any of the show’s educational sessions. It was moderated by LoAnn Halden, communications director for the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a global travel network dedicated to connecting and educating LGBT travelers and the businesses that welcome and support them along the way.

The panel members were Jim McMichael, diversity and cultural manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority; Tom Alderink, Belmond’s first director of LGBT sales; and Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer for Cruise Planners.

“The biggest evolution is that we are recognized as a viable market now,” said Halden, who confirmed that the LGBT segment is estimated to be worth about $200 billion a year.

The reason the market is so lucrative, according to many experts, is because, generally speaking, LGBT clients tend to spend far more money than their non-gay counterparts, since many same-sex couples have more disposable income mainly due to the fact that most do not travel with children. Note, however, this doesn’t mean that most LGBT clients do not have children. This may have been the case perhaps 10 years ago, when adoption for gay couples was more difficult.

LGBT Parents

Many marketers think of LGBTs with children as a more recent phenomenon, but when asked about the age of the children in the household, just over half of the families have at least one child over age 10. Last year, LGBT parents took a median two vacation trips with their children. Three out of four (74 percent) report staying in a hotel at least one time. However, fewer than half of parents indicated air travel with their children, preferring drive vacations.

Fun Is All-Inclusive

The idea that the LGBT community doesn’t like to travel among non-gays in the Caribbean — or anywhere around the world for that matter — is just another misperception, say experts. In fact, gay bars, nightclubs or any other form of entertainment that exclusively targets this community are not even in the top three priorities of members of this niche market heading to the Caribbean, according to the experts we spoke to.

“What I’m starting to see is more and more mixed groups,” says Frank M. Holtslag, general manager of the Floris Suite Hotel, Spa and Beach Club, often considered Curacao’s most LGBT-welcoming resort. “I see this mainly in Key West, but think there will be more of it in the Caribbean, more gay and straight people traveling together as there continues to be more and more open-minded people who want to mingle with the gay community.”

Garcia says that blending of gay and straight clients can also be found on cruises today.

In fact, according to the CMI study, only a third of LGBT consumers indicated that they have chosen a hotel or brand based on its LGBT reputation in the past 12 months. These results may indicate that marketing strategies based solely on increasing LGBT reputation may only influence about a third of these travelers today. Compared to Baby Boomers, Millennials are half as likely to stay in small accommodations dedicated to gay men or lesbians. The trend may be a concern for this category of accommodation.

Not All LGBT Clients Believe in Boycotting

As we previously mentioned, according to the CMI study, 11 percent of respondents indicated that they are willing to travel to a country that has laws against LGBT people.

“Whether you are gay or straight, you have to be mindful of the local culture and the local laws,” says John Tanzella, president and CEO of the IGLTA. However, having old anti-gay laws still on the books doesn’t necessarily make it an unsafe destination for LGBT clients.

“We are a business association and we are all about growing business and building bridges,” says Tanzella. “Boycotting does not help us achieve this. We are not the right association to boycott. It’s better to be there and be seen. But we don’t encourage doing anything radical.”

A Sign of Change?

At the recently concluded State of the Industry Conference 2015 in Curacao this past October, LGBT travel in the Caribbean was on the official agenda. It was the first time that a Caribbean Tourism Organization-sponsored event discussed the issue. The discussion was lead by Paisley, who said the opportunity could signify change.

“I think it’s a sign that many in the Caribbean are pushing for a change,” says Paisley, “and as soon as you get the masses onboard, change can happen.”

Same-Sex Marriage in the Caribbean

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recently became the two latest Caribbean destinations where same-sex couples can legally wed.

In late June, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled for marriage equality and that same-gender couples have the constitutional right to marry in all 50 states and all U.S. territories. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are covered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Civil marriage equality at the territory level is now legal.

These two destinations join Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius as the other Caribbean destinations where same-sex marriage is legal. Ironically, Bonaire and St. Eustatius are not nearly as LGBT welcoming as other islands that do not allow gay marriage, such as St. Maarten/St. Martin and Curacao.

In fact, most consider Curacao the LGBT capital of the Caribbean, yet legalized same-sex marriage doesn’t exist there.

The Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous Caribbean country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, was dissolved on October 10, 2010. After dissolution, the “BES islands” of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba became special municipalities of the Netherlands proper, while Curacao and St. Maarten became constituent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along the lines of Aruba, which separated from the Netherlands roughly 30 years ago. Because the BES islands became special municipalities, citizens of those islands are entitled to the same rights as those living in the Netherlands.

“The Caribbean has over 30 islands with their own distinct background,” says Andre Rojer, marketing manager for the Curacao Tourist Board. “Then you have the Dutch islands and they won’t bat a brow on the issue. The Netherlands is the first country in the world to legalize gay marriages and they are the first country to bring this open mentality to the U.S.”

Although you cannot legally get married in Curacao, the island does offer symbolic wedding ceremonies and vow renewals for same-sex couples. The island even has its own wedding planner that has been assisting symbolic nuptials and vow renewal ceremonies for gay couples for the last few months, Rojer says.

And other destinations are coming around as well. St. Maarten also offers symbolic ceremonies and it has now been joined by the French side of St. Martin, which started to offer them this year, says Kate Richardson, director of tourism for St. Martin.

Also, keep an eye on Antigua and Barbados as both islands are making some great progress in adapting to the LGBT culture. Both islands are slowly popping up on gay clients’ radars as they are both beginning to offer wedding ceremonies but same-sex couples still cannot get legally married.

Floris Suite Hotel & Spa is generally acknowledged to be the most LGBT-friendly hotel on Curacao.
Floris Suite Hotel & Spa is generally acknowledged to be the most LGBT-friendly hotel on Curacao.

LGBT Welcoming Caribbean Hotels

By no means are these the only LGBT-welcoming hotels in the Caribbean, but we were told by most experts that this selection should be a solid start for agents looking to break into this market.

* Floris Suite Hotel & Spa Curacao: Known as the most LGBT-friendly hotel on the island, this 72-suite hotel is the site of the annual Curacao Pride festival. General Manager Frank Holtslag is also the president of Curacao Gay Pro, which works to organize events for the community on the island.

Floris Suite has a brand new fitness center with steam room, a sauna and new fitness equipment and the courtyard has a private pool, and it is the only hotel on island that caters to guests 18 and older. Another great feature is the hotel’s “Out and About” list, which is a list given to the concierge that details LGBT-friendly activities throughout the island.

“Staff training is so important,” says Holtslag. “Our guests are comfortable enough to hold hands and kiss around the pool and snuggle in the ocean without anyone giggling or giving them strange looks. LGBT clients feel comfortable, but also all guests here feel comfortable because there is a very accepting vibe here.”

* Sonesta Kura Hulanda Village & Spa, Curacao: This 4.5-star property offers a boutique village experience in the center of Willemstad, the island’s capital city, 20 minutes from the airport and walking distance to prime shopping, diverse cuisine, nightlife and more.

It’s one of the many island hotels that are a member of IGLTA. It’s centrally located on the island, close to downtown Willemstad and the Queen Emma Bridge.

None of the rooms are alike and many feature unique architectural elements that could appeal to the LGBT traveler, especially the art enthusiast. Spread over an eight-block area, the resort village includes two pools, multiple restaurants and bars, shops, a world-acclaimed anthropological museum, spa, courtyards and gardens.

* Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort Curacao: As the latest installment to join the Benchmark Hospitality International family, a partner of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, this former Hyatt Regency resort is the focal point of the 1,500-acre Santa Barbara Plantation community. Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort Curacao is also an IGLTA member. It’s well suited for LGBT travelers looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Willemstad and relax on the serene east side of the island.

The 350-room property also has one of the best spas (Atabei) on the island. All spa suites include a personal vanity, rain shower and outdoor relaxation patio. LGBT clients may also enjoy the co-ed relaxation lounge where the hotel provides complimentary refreshments and light snacks.

* Queen’s Gardens Resort, Saba: Located in the hills of Saba, this is another all-time favorite amongst LGBT experts for two reasons: the seclusion and the food. The small, yet attentive, staff is very hands-on at the Queen’s Gardens Resort, catering to every guest’s individual needs.

The outstanding Caribbean cuisine is prepared by Chef Kevin Hollans while the hotel also houses a robust selection of rums from Martinique and Guadeloupe. The kicker, however, is that every room has its own open-air Jacuzzi facing the valley below. Think Jade Mountain in St. Lucia but for way cheaper.

* Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino: LGBT guests here can enjoy luxurious accommodations that feature spacious guest rooms, upscale bedding and bathrooms, high-tech amenities and some of the largest balconies in Aruba. They will love the relaxing H2Oasis Adult Pool or the more exciting Stellaris Casino. The hotel culinary offerings are led by the always-popular Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

* Gran Melia Puerto Rico: This 486-suite hotel is located in the tropics of the El Yunque rainforest, allowing ample privacy for LGBT clients, although they can still feel comfortable walking the streets of the surrounding neighborhood as this area of Puerto Rico is deemed extremely warm to this community. The hotel is scattered over 20, two-story bungalows. It also comprises a YHI Spa and the Trump International Golf Club with two 18-hole championship golf courses designed by PGA pro Tom Kite.

* Sand Castle on the Beach Resort, St. Croix: You just need to visit this resort hotel’s website to get a sense of just how LGBT-welcoming it really is. From photos of gay couples kissing on the beach to a proclamation that “We Celebrate Inclusion and Diversity. We do not Discriminate,” the Sand Castle on the Beach is pretty open about including everyone at their hotel. The hotel offers LGBT clients seven room types from beachfront villas to economical studios. All accommodations are air-conditioned, have private baths, overhead fans, cable TV and a beach cooler. All of the suites and beachfront villas are equipped with kitchens, separate living areas and a sleeper sofa.

St. Barth’s Le Guanahani invites guests of all persuasions to experience its five-star luxury.
St. Barth’s Le Guanahani invites guests of all persuasions to experience its five-star luxury.

* Le Guanahani, St. Barth: Although it is not IGLTA certified, Le Guanahani, St. Barth private enclave, invites the LGBT community to experience the luxurious, secluded, tropical escape that is St. Barth. The newly renovated, five-star hotel is located on a private 16-acre peninsula between Marigot Bay and Grand Cul de Sac.

LGBT travelers can enjoy two beaches, two pools, a restorative Spa by Clarins, a full suite of water sports, two restaurants with al fresco settings, a fitness center, flood-lit tennis courts and engaging children’s programs. The hotel and staff are very LGBT-friendly and all-inclusive whether it’s welcoming couples, planning a symbolic wedding or hosting a honeymoon.

The accepting nature of the French culture makes St. Barth a welcoming haven for LGBT visitors.
The accepting nature of the French culture makes St. Barth a welcoming haven for LGBT visitors.

* Belmond La Samanna, St. Martin: This IGLTA-certified hotel is arguably the best hotel in general on the island. The Belmond company as a whole is very LGBT-welcoming and is actively marketing toward this clientele.

In fact, Belmond, a global collection of 46 iconic hotels, trains and river cruises, appointed Tom Alderink back in May as the company’s first director of LGBT sales. The property offers all the amenities one would expect from a five-star hotel from swanky beach cabanas to a 15-foot-long infinity pool. This is also a great spot for LGBT clients with families as the hotel also offers its unique Camp La Samanna, which provides such activities, as treasure hunts for children.

Cottage units at Juliana’s Hotel on Saba are recommended for budget-conscious LGBT travelers.
 
Cottage units at Juliana’s Hotel on Saba are recommended for budget-conscious LGBT travelers.

* Juliana’s Hotel, Saba: LGBT clients not looking for all the bells and whistles of a five-star hotel will be satisfied with this hotel, which is well suited for budget-conscious clients. For those looking for more luxurious accommodations, Juliana’s Hotel offers a fully equipped apartment or a choice of three private Saban cottages.

* The Cottage Club Hotel, Saba: This hotel also appeals to budget-conscious guests. Although we were told by experts that the hotel is in need of some minor touch-ups, we were also told that these rooms provide some of the best views in all of Saba. LGBT clients will feel at home in one of the hotel’s 10 cottages. They all include full kitchens and have own private balcony facing the sea.

The Most LGBT-Welcoming Caribbean Islands

We hope this list will continue to grow as more and more islands are beginning to accept the culture of the LGBT tourist, especially because island locals are realizing that these clients are not incredibly different from their heterosexual counterparts.

Curacao

As part of the Travel Industry Exchange in Orlando, we asked LoAnn Halden of IGLTA which island, according to her, was the most LGBT-welcoming in the Caribbean, and she responded by saying, “Curacao, Curacao, Curacao!”

Known for its unique architecture, 60-plus dive sites, wide range of adventure opportunities and year-round warm weather, Curacao is currently considered one of the hottest escapes for seasoned Caribbean clients looking for something different in the region.

Now, with new nonstop flights, offered by JetBlue Airways from New York, the island is poised to become an option even for the first-time Caribbean visitor.

There are still some Caribbean islands that are not onboard with the acceptance of LGBT vacationers, but Curacao is certainly not one of them. The island’s European influence and the open, friendly nature of its people, along with events such as Gay Pride Week and South Caribbean Pride Week, have put it on the frontline of LGBT tourism in the Caribbean.

Saba

While Curacao is on the fast track to the mainstream tourist market, Saba is still most popular amongst the seasoned Caribbean travelers looking for an island they haven’t been to yet.

With increasing numbers of gay and lesbian tour packages being offered by the island and with American travelers not only accepting the LGBT community, but embracing it, we expect Saba to get on the mainstream map very soon. So, tell clients to go now while it’s still a secret.

Saba is very easy to get to and occupies a spot within a cluster of other impressive Dutch islands that make it the perfect starting point for an island-hopping tour. Tell clients to fly to St. Maarten and take a short, scenic ferry ride to Saba. The island can also be reached by air from St. Maarten via a 12-minute flight from Windward Islands Airways.

While an agent’s prime market for Saba is the LGBT community, you can target seasoned Caribbean travelers who would opt for adventure and nature over a casino, a beach and a nightclub. But don’t ignore the newbies, as long as you pair Saba with a few nights in either neighboring St.Maarten/St. Martin or Anguilla.

St. Maarten Oyster Pond, which borders St. Martin, is an example of the island’s gay-friendly hotels.
St. Maarten Oyster Pond, which borders St. Martin, is an example of the island’s gay-friendly hotels.

St. Maarten/St. Martin

Both the Dutch and the French have traditionally been pretty accepting of the LGBT community for years so it’s no surprise that both the French side of St. Martin and the Dutch side of St. Maarten are good fits for these travelers.

LGBT clients looking for some fun in the sun will love Cupecoy Beach in St. Maarten, often considered a popular retreat for the community.

As a Dutch island, St. Maarten tends to be a bit more LGBT-welcoming than other islands in the Caribbean. While same-sex marriage is not legal, the island does offer an array of symbolic wedding ceremonies and vow renewals. St. Martin, as we previously mentioned, just began conducting symbolic same-sex marriages this year.

Puerto Rico

There are pockets of Puerto Rico that are more friendly to the LGBT community than others, but you can’t go wrong pitching San Juan as it is often considered one of the most gay-friendly spots in the Caribbean. Specifically, the Condado District is currently booming with LGBT visitors. The area has seen a resurgence in general as many new hotels have popped up recently, including the re-opening of the iconic Condado Vanderbilt earlier this year. This is where you dine out and stay out until you’re ready to sleep.

“Puerto Rico is the best of all worlds, a vast collection of islands, the main one offering verdant rain forests, colonial Old San Juan, top resorts like the new Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach and The St. Regis Bahia Beach and more,” says John Clifford, president of International Travel Management, which is affiliated with Tzell Your Travel Center, a branch of the Tzell Travel Group. “The opposite are windswept and funky Culebra and little sister, laid back Vieques Island, where the chic W Retreat & Spa Vieques is the isle’s only full-service resort and so much more than a thumping night club, coming complete with an airport welcome suite, massive oceanfront digs and a talented Whatever/Whenever team.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands

All three of these isles are LGBT-welcoming, but none more so than the small island of St. Croix. Because it is a U.S. territory, it is very Americanized and shares a lot of the same general principles of Americans. To put it simply, a gay tourist is nothing new here.

Belmond La Samanna is an IGLTA-certified hotel on St. Martin that is actively marketing to LGBT guests.
Belmond La Samanna is an IGLTA-certified hotel on St. Martin that is actively marketing to LGBT guests.

St. Barth

As is the case of St. Martin, LGBT clients are also welcomed here due to the accepting nature of the French culture. This small French-Caribbean island offers so many secluded, high-end villas and cottages to make anyone feel safe, but by no means does an LGBT client need to stay put at the resort. Food, art and culture are also top priorities of Caribbean-bound LGBT clients and St. Barth has plenty of all three.

Aruba

Not surprisingly, another Dutch island made the list. Aruba, although it joins Curacao and St. Maarten as the Dutch islands where same-sex marriage is illegal, has a long history of priding itself on its diversity. LGBT visibility, especially in the hotels and restaurants, is fairly apparent here.

La Vie Lounge Aruba is the spot to be for these clients looking for some nightlife. The club often hosts drag queen shows and other fun LGBT-oriented events.

Agent Insight

“There is a great misconception that all of the Bahamas and the Caribbean are not welcoming of LGBT visitors,” says John Clifford, president of International Travel Management, which is affiliated with Tzell Your Travel Center, a branch of the Tzell Travel Group. “Though that still remains true for some island nations, others have rolled out the red carpet, knowing this is a market with a propensity toward higher spending, longer stays, more frequent vacations and a love for upper upscale accommodations.

“For a little au-natural enjoyment, the clothing optional beaches, chic nightlife, Michelin-starred dining, celebrity buzz and cosmopolitan island of St. Barts [St. Barthelemy] were a bit of a secret back in the days of Studio 54 and the isle has been, and still remains, a favorite haunt for Hollywood royalty,” says Clifford. “Some of the Caribbean’s best resorts are rebirths and rebrands of old icons like the newly flagged Cheval Blanc Saint-Barth Isle de France, the iconic Eden Roc and Le Toiny, and the stylish minimalism of Le Sereno. These chic island outposts continually raise the bar on top-end luxury with a French twist and similar French welcome of all.”

LGBT Clients Book With Non-LGBT Agents

Many experts we spoke to say a misperception is that LGBT clients only book with LGBT advisors. While you don’t have to be an LGBT person to sell this market, it is important to identify yourself as an advocate of this market. Las Vegas CVA’s Jim McMichael says the biggest buzzword for a straight agent selling LGBT travel — whether to domestic destinations, the Caribbean or elsewhere — should be “LGBT Ally.”

“This is a strong buzzword you can use that shows you are engaged in this community,” he says. “You might not be gay, but you are an ally of the community. Use that buzzword.”

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