Wake up and smell the queer coffee

The hospitality industry has been slowly waking up to the growing power of the pink rupee. The pink rupee is a colloquial term for the business potential of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community. At the recently concluded annual Hotel Investment Conference -- South Asia (HICSA) at Grand Hyatt in Santacruz (E), a session revolved around the topic of: ‘Are you getting the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) business in your hotel?’

Arvind Singh Mewar
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar speaking at the hospitality industry's huge platform. Pics/Abhinav Kocharekar

Before one comes to the speaker or the content of the session, it is important to note that a topic like the one above at the hospitality industry’s huge public platform, was a get-up-and-smell-the-queer-coffee moment. The session itself blended in seamlessly with the other agenda of that day, indicating that people here were ready and receptive to consider LGBT business an increasingly important slice of the hospitality pie.

The speaker addressing the audience for the session was Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur, of the Historic Resorts Hotels (HRH) Pvt. Ltd. and though the privy purse has been abolished, there was a touch of the royal about it all. Speaking in a clipped accent, Shriji took the dais, and first said on a term of frivolity, “For some time now, I have been conversant with a high level conspiracy between my daughter and a friend for getting me to introduce the LGBT session in this forum. I would like to say congratulations to both of you for succeeding in your endeavour.”

Padmaja Kumari Parmar
Padmaja Kumari Parmar, who believes the gay traveller is another demographic in a rapidly shifting landscape

Shriji went on to say, “I am delighted really to pioneer this session on LGBT tourism in India on such a public platform, whether I am qualified to do so is debatable but I am willing to open the innings so to speak. I have never backed off from a challenge and I am prepared to be hanged and quartered by all of you. This is not a study of sexual preferences and I am not judgemental. What I am saying is let us look at LGBT as a business in the larger interest of our industry while respecting cultural ethos. We have to expect these changes to run their natural course. In India, we tend to sermonise and tend to hide behind hypocrisy and clichéd road maps.”

LGBT tourist hotel
Typical gay club in LGBT tourist destination -- old Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The rainbow colours are symbolic of the gay community, signifying diversity

Shriji brought in the legal angle as with LGBT rights, legality is vital. There was jubilation when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was read down by the Delhi High Court. Chapter XVI, Section 377 of the IPC is a piece of legislation in India introduced during British rule of India that criminalises sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The High Court of Delhi read the section down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults in a historic judgement on July 2, 2009. After reminding his audience about the current legal status on LGBT rights, Shriji said that, “Gay tourism, though contentious is a hugely relevant topic because of the changes in Indian law. Homosexuality should be seen in the light of the changing times. What was immoral maybe 20 years ago, is acceptable now. This observation from the higher courts proves our progressive mindset and it lays down the future for our country. It is the cornerstone for the foundation for future laws to be made.”

As hotel owners, managers, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and others aligned to the industry in different ways listened, Shriji explained with a flourish, “The time is now to further open our doors to the LGBT segment of tourism. It is an irreversible part of liberalisation. The community has definitely carved out a significant niche for itself. At the height of the global recession, where there is a drop in our industry one cannot afford to overlook this emerging revenue stream.”

Shriji spoke about the dynamism in the industry rewinding to, “I remember in the 1960s in hotels here, the guest would be unable to get hot water from a tap. We had to tell a staffer to fetch hot water! Years ago, society frowned upon women working in this industry, today they are pillars of the industry, so what seemed radical years ago, seamlessly blends in today. If the industry could adapt so well from that primitive stage, then what is the difference to what I am proposing? Why not embrace this segment?”

In a statement that could surely earn Shriji a couple of LGBT high fives, he said that “there is a need to understand the nuances of this emerging segment as a special interest group. They are big spenders and they support the underprivileged, while also interested in the culture of the region. It is also a demographic which relies heavily on the Internet for bookings.”

Shriji elaborated, “One needs to lay down ground rules and train all concerned about how one can deal with this segment. We need to show full respect for privacy.” Shriji claimed that one reason the industry has suffered is the recent Delhi rape (Nirbhaya) case, which affected business stating, “At least 25 per cent of our business has gone out of the window.”
It is imperative then, that we put make the guest feel safe and secure. Shriji cited the example of some hotels which are, “Now reserving an entire floor for lady guests, so that many travelling solo, feel safer and more secure.”

Shriji though did have a little word of caution for LGBT travellers saying, “It would not be remiss if they too respect the tick of the locals. Our domestic market has not matured yet and overall, for all visitors it is best and important to observe the laws of the country.” Shriji rounded off his address saying, “As Indian hospitality destinations gear themselves to receive this business, it is a timely step, we cannot afford to be caught napping on the starting blocks. These are challenging and emerging times, Asia is becoming the new power centre of the world and we stand on the cusp of history. LGBT tourism is a new social challenge and we have to rise to the challenge of accepting it as a social responsibility,” he ended.

Meanwhile, Padmaja Kumari Parmar, Shriji’s daughter’s smile showed that dad had passed the challenge with flying colours. She said post the speech that, “I wanted dad to speak on the topic as he is naturally a very good orator and this is outside his comfort zone.” Padmaja who is the Executive Director Business Development of the HRH Pvt. Ltd. added, “The industry is in constant flux, so getting this segment in is not new in a way. First, we never had women travellers, touring solo at times, now we do. We did not have hotels as MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) destinations, now we do. So, there is a constantly evolving demographic and the LGBT traveller is one of them.”

Shriji said that with all the progress, India is still some years away from the time an owner would openly label a hotel or a resort as ‘gay friendly’ as it happens in the West. Though light years behind some nations, it would be a sign of maturity when this segment mixes Shriji said, “effortlessly into the hospitality landscape.” Say namaste to gay. In your hotel they will stay.

Gays get a move on
This report will prove that India, making some inroads into gay tourism has a long way to go before LGBT matures as an intrinsic part of the travel landscape. The Wikipedia states that gay travel destinations are popular among practitioners of gay tourism because they usually have permissive or liberal attitudes towards gays, feature a prominent gay infrastructure (bars, businesses, restaurants, hotels, nightlife, entertainment, media, organisations, etc.), the opportunity to socialise with other gays, and the feeling that one can relax safely amongst other gay people. Gay travel destinations are often large cities, although not exclusively, and often coincide with the existence of gay neighbourhoods. Travel analysts state that the existence of a core gay friendly population is often the primary catalyst for the development of a gay-friendly tourist destination.

The LGBT tourism industry represents an estimated annual US $65 billion on gay travel in the USA Since 2002, there has been a historic rise in gay tourism marketing. Destinations such as Philadelphia, Dallas and Ft. Lauderdale have engaged in gay tourism campaigns. The ‘14th International Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism’ will be held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in December 2013. The conference is produced by Community Marketing & Insights, an LGBT market research and communications firm. 

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