10 top gay travel destinations

 

From laid-back Paris to party-loving Bangkok, there's a spot to suit everyone, writes Michael Luongo

CALL IT THE PINK EURO, the pink pound or the pink dollar, but one thing is clear: the global economic downturn has not affected gay travel.

Dual incomes and no kids mean this segment of the population has much more time and money than other travellers. Bob Witeck of Witeck-Combs Communications, a firm specialising in gay travel research, says gay people consistently spend more on travel and entertainment, even during downturns.

Gay travel has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, with options and destinations expanding all the time. Greater acceptance and awareness of gay rights, even by once traditionally conservative parts of the world, particularly Latin America, have added to the choice.

John Tanzella of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association says the huge expansion in destinations and in the number of companies serving the gay travel market is reflected in the fact that his organisation now has members from all over the world, including Peru and China.

So where are these supposedly recession- proof gay travellers heading? Here, besides Mykonos, are 10 other popular destinations.

Paris

France

They don't call it Gay Paris for nothing. The Marais district is the centre of the city's gay life. This shabby-chic neighbourhood has gentrified recently largely due to its gay population. Yet the whole city has long been gay friendly, especially with the French lack of concern for what other people do in bed. This, after all, is the city where Oscar Wilde spent the last years of his life when Victorian London found him scandalous. You can still visit him at Père-Lachaise cemetery, where thousands of well-wishers leave red-lipstick kiss marks all over his tombstone. Don't forget that Paris also has the largest Arabic population in Europe, with many openly gay in a way not possible in their home countries. If you want to do your part for western and Middle Eastern understanding, Paris is a good start.

New York

United States

The largest city in the US is home to possibly the world's largest openly gay and lesbian population. The modern gay-rights movement got its start here, with the 1969 Stonewall riots, commemorated by June gay-pride marches the world over. Gay venues have moved from pricey Greenwich Village, home of the original Stonewall Inn, to Manhattan through Chelsea and into Hell's Kitchen. Almost every New York neighbourhood has something gay, with Queens sporting some of the most happening dance clubs, especially in Latino-heavy Jackson Heights and Astoria.

Los Angeles

United States

Almost the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger declared he wouldn't overturn California's supreme-court ruling on gay marriage, hotels in the state started sending out press releases for gay couples planning their nuptials. But this part of the world doesn't need marriage to make people visit. West Hollywood, perhaps the world's gayest dozen square kilometres, and the surrounding metropolis of Los Angeles have long been gay favourites. Gay nightlife centres on Santa Monica Boulevard, where gay cafes, bookstores, boutiques and clubs abound. More and more gays are heading farther east to the Silverlake district and Mid-Wilshire. Beach culture pervades the city, and ageless gay beach bums abound no matter the time of year, heading to Pacific-kissed Santa Monica and Venice Beach to skate, surf and suntan, showing off those perfect California bodies.

Buenos Aires

Argentina

One of the most important gay destinations is Buenos Aires. The Argentine capital was the first Latin American city to legalise gay civil unions, in 2002. That, paired with the spectacular drop in value of the peso, fuelled a gay-tourism boom. The city's tourism office prints several gay maps, and some officials estimate that gays and lesbians make up 20 per cent of all international tourists. Gays are also changing some of Argentina's most important symbols. The sensuous tango is now danced openly by same-sex couples, and the city also hosted an international gay soccer tournament last year. Evita, with the gay icon Madonna, certainly helped put the country into the gay imagination. Some of the world's most handsome men happen to live in Buenos Aires. The best places to catch the gay ones are at bars in the Barrio Norte or San Telmo neighbourhoods. The only crying for Argentina you'll do is when you leave.

Rio de Janeiro

Brazil

No part of the world defines sensuality like Brazil. In spite of Catholicism, Brazilians have long turned a blind eye to judging sexuality. This is most apparent during the city's carnival. Gays and lesbians mix with everyone during this time, but they have their own events, too, such as a gay ball in the Leblon district, with some of the most beautiful transgendered women on the continent the highlight. The Banda de Ipanema carnival party isn't technically gay-only, but with its location on Rua Farme de Amoedo, Ipanema's gayest street, it seems that way. Year round, the beach here is full of beautiful volleyball-playing men, nicknamed Barbies because of their perfect, sometimes plastic-surgery-enhanced bodies. In Copacabana, across the street from the Copacabana Hotel, look for the rainbow flag for its more egalitarian gay beach, where the less-well-sculpted will feel at home. The neighbourhood has the city's best gay nightlife.

Provincetown

United States

Legend has it that the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, before they made it to Plymouth, although this part of the town's history has long since been eclipsed by its vibrant arts community. Provincetown Players, which was founded by Eugene O'Neill in 1916, is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern American drama, and painters and intellectuals have gravitated to the place ever since. Quaint, beautiful and friendly - as well as unabashedly camp - Provincetown was also settled by Portuguese fishing families, and it still holds that tradition dear. For the urban sophisticate, the town boasts galleries, carnivals, jazz, great restaurants, stunning beaches, historic charm and probably the best whale-watching in the US - as well as a few ripe drag queens. There's even a water taxi from Logan Airport, in Boston, across Cape Cod Bay.

Amsterdam

The Netherlands

Amsterdam's liberal culture and easy attitude have long made the city a popular destination for gays and lesbians. It was also the first city with a gay monument: a few blocks from Anne Frank's museum home the giant pink triangle Homomonument honours gays killed by the Nazis. In 1998 the city was the first host outside North America for the Gay Games. It has a few gay areas, such as the bar-lined Reguliersdwarsstraat; the Halvemaansteeg area, near the Amstel River; Warmoesstraat, in the red-light district, with its leather bars; and Kerkstraat, which has been popular with gays for decades. The city has two gay prides: the official one, in late July, and the Dutch queen's birthday celebration, around April 30, which has become another excuse for local gays to party and wear royal-themed drag.

Bangkok

Thailand

One night in Bangkok will never be enough, not with its well-developed infrastructure of gay bars and other venues. Much of the action is concentrated on Silam Road. The city's gay-pride parade is enormous, and HIV and Aids prevention has often been among the enlightened themes, even encouraged by government programs. The Bangkok-based British writer Martin Foreman says the city has "some of the handsomest and friendliest men on the planet - and over 100 bars, nightclubs and saunas to meet them in". In spite of what seems a liberal, party-loving attitude, he says, "remember that Thais expect modesty in public: it's bad manners to flaunt your sexuality, whether hetero- or homo-, in public". Follow the rules and hit the right spots, and you'll understand why this is Asia's gay party capital.

Sydney

Australia

Iconic, liberal, fun-loving Sydney has long been a gay travel capital. The city's Mardi Gras celebration began as a small Aids fundraiser, then blossomed into one of the world's largest gay-pride events. It is also Australia's largest annual tourism event, gay or straight. If you can't make it down here during the festivities, the aptly named Darlinghurst is Sydney's main gay neighbourhood, and there is always something going on. That area is mainly for the boys, but lesbians will find tons to do all over the city as well, especially in Leichhardt, sometimes nicknamed Dykeheart. The well toned and well tanned flock to the city's golden seaside, with many men showing off their best assets by wearing aussieBum bathing suits on the interestingly named Manly Beach.

Toronto

Canada

Canada might seem to live in the shadows of its brassy American neighbour, but Toronto's easy-going liberal attitude has long made it a popular gay destination. The country's embrace of gay marriage means that men and women are flocking here for their ceremonies and sometimes sticking around long after the honeymoons. Most of the city's gay venues are clustered around Church Street, but almost every part of the city is gay-friendly. The city's gay-pride parade is held on the last Sunday in June, the same time as New York's and San Francisco's, and it rivals both in size and diversity. Big on creative talent, gay cultural events and projects are important offerings in Toronto, whether Inside Out, the city's gay and lesbian film festival, held each May, or the plays produced by gay theatre companies working in the Church Street area.

• Michael Luongo, a New York-based travel writer and photographer, is the author of several gay travel books, including the recentGay Travels in the Muslim World . www.michaelluongo.com