When it comes to precious vacation time, gay men can be fickle. In my many years of trying to understand the travel behaviour of this valuable niche, I’ve come to find that like clothes, holiday options are fashionable and disposable. Gay travel companies are constantly having to reinvent themselves to suit the changing needs and wants of this demanding market – it really is a case of necessity being the mother of invention.
However, there is one type of holiday that has actually stood the test of time – gay cruises, particularly all-gay cruises. In fact, the market is growing significantly, by 9% in the last year we’re told, with new players offering more options and existing ones diversifying their product range. You just have to spend a second on Google and you’ll see how much choice there really is and how hard these operators are working to deliver unique experiences and pouring money into marketing, in the hope of capturing that holiday dollar. Or shall I say dollars. With the average cost of a good, gay cruise now around US$1,790 per person (not including incidental onboard and shore spending of around US$200 per person per day) this is seriously lucrative business – 20% more lucrative than courting straight customers in fact. And that’s just the average – in the luxury sector of the industry, the basic cost, which is that of the cruise ticket, can be over double the average.
People are however, willing to spend because it isn’t about expense but value for money. Primarily, the ultimate value is the opportunity for us to be who we truly are and relax among likeminded passengers. But it goes beyond that – in fact all gay cruises push the notion of brotherhood, camaraderie and the opportunity to widen your social network. Some people choose their cruise based on social and economic status of fellow passengers. Others want to diversify their group of friends by choosing trips with passengers of varying nationalities. Others are happy to ‘suck it and see,’ in more ways than one. But with the advent of social networking and technology connecting travellers and allowing interaction with each other before and after, sharing the excitement, pictures, memories and the like, one of the biggest selling points now for cruises is who you’re likely to meet on board.
But it seems that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model when it comes to why one person chooses a trip over another. The diversity of the gay community itself means that we are taking just about every type of cruise, to every port, in every season. There is no specific ‘gay itinerary’. Plus, once the pleasure of North American gays, cruises are now appealing to all nationalities. Europeans are cruising more than ever before and Latin Americans are seeing their options to go on Spanish-speaking cruises grow. And as cruise itineraries diversify, starting ports change and with this, so do the nationality mix of the people on board – the so-called ‘globalisation’ of the passenger list. However, this poses its own challenges when it comes to integration and customer satisfaction. Americans prefer to eat early. Brazilians and the Hispanics eat late. Japanese passengers are food-fussy and struggle with language although they’ll try, much to the confusion of the ship’s Filipino staff. The French won’t speak English at all. The Brits want to be by the pool all day and all night. The Asians are solar-phobic and sit in their cabins or hog the casinos.
As the world becomes more tolerant to homosexuality, the choice of available ports and itineraries are also growing. It seems there is a bit of a bunfight to secure new ports in the race to be the first to offer a particular destination. However sometimes it can lead to a lack of consideration as to truly how ‘gay-welcoming’ a particular port is. This year alone there have been incidents of port authorities not allowing gay cruise charters to dock. In a famous case, two men were arrested for getting in on, on the balcony of their berth whilst in the waters of a country where being gay is a felony. No doubt, some ports will always be less gay friendly than others, but the cruise organisers need to be more aware and responsible of what they’re off ering to customers. And in response, so must the customers. Of course the atmosphere aboard an all-gay cruise will be a little bit more fl amboyant, but this isn’t an excuse to be disrespectful of local customs.
There are however plenty of welcoming destinations to whet the appetite. There are the staples of friendly Caribbean islands, the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), the Mediterranean – checking in at Mykonos, Venice, Ibiza or Barcelona. These ports deliver over and over again for gay travellers and will always hold appeal. However, a new wave of itineraries is starting to take in some really interesting ports. The Mexican Riviera, Antartica, Rio and Buenos Aires. Further afi eld there are exotic experiences to be found in Asia – Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Indonesian islands. It seems that cruises are ‘growing up’ somewhat, evolving from their traditionally hedonistic reputations.
And in this ‘growing up’ we are seeing more sophisticated cruise scenes emerge. Cruise organisers are seeing a trend in guests wanting more intimate cruise ships. These smaller vessels can visit ports that the larger ones can’t get into. Also, it allows a more personalised service – special programmes, onboard enrichment activities, education and philanthropy, so that guests can get more out of the travel experience than just casino, show and spa, returning home with renewed energy, skills and knowledge.
This is natural because as the gay community evolves, so do our needs and wants. An interesting trend is in the emergence of more gay ‘family’ holidays. As more and more gay people have children, this is going to be the next big thing in cruising – for those who are looking for a ‘family-friendly’ experience but yet be among other gay people. And these people don’t just holiday alone. They come with grandparents, gay goddads, queer uncles – cruise operators are realising that there is an enormous opportunity here, for multi-berth sales from just one family unit.
So it seems that cruising of the future is less about space-aged floating cities and far more about meeting the growing needs of an increasingly sophisticated customer base.
Destinations and passenger lists will diversify. Onboard experiences will develop to be enriching as well as enjoying. Social networking will create cruising communities who share and care. Gay ‘families’ will no longer just be cruise alumnis but actually include children. Perhaps if the issue of marriage equality ever gets solved across the world, we’ll see fully legal registrations on board.
But whatever the future holds, unlike the ever-changing landscape of gay travel on-land, it seems that we are more than happy to carry on cruising into the sunset.