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Pink Tourists

The gay getaway

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Gay-friendly travel companies are setting up shop as India becomes a popular destination for LGBT travellers.

The deserts of Rajasthan, backwaters of Kerala and hills of Kashmir have always beckoned foreign tourists. But as mindsets change, exotic India is fast becoming a favourite destination for pink tourists - members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community. And catering to their needs are a few gay-friendly travel agencies.

"We wanted to provide comfortable facilities to LGBT tourists who want to come and enjoy the historical and cultural richness of south Indian cities, " says Vikranth Prasanna, founder of Chennai Dost. The organisation for gays, lesbians and bisexuals launched their travel and tourism initiative a few months ago.

"Tourists can connect with the local community and this will facilitate cultural exchange, " says Prasanna. "Many international travellers are interested in exploring the LGBT history of India. They like to visit temples, many of which have sculptures portraying homosexuality. "

While the industry is still in its nascent stages in India, with only a few travel companies catering to this niche segment, people are discovering the power of pink money. "LGBT people are more independent and have more money as they don't have families or children. They are likely to invest more in tourism, " says Rohit Katara, inbound tour manager of Pink Vibgyor, which was launched in 2010.
Other countries like the US and the UK have already cashed in on pink tourism. Community Marketing Inc in San Francisco estimates the value of the LGBT travel market in the US alone at $65 billion. Pink tourist agencies cater to the needs of the community's members to ensure that they enjoy a hassle-free trip.

According to the International Gay & Lesbian travel Association (IGLTA), India is fast becoming a pink destination. "IGLTA has seen an increase in members in India since homosexuality was decriminalised in 2009, particularly with India-based tour operators creating products specifically for inbound LGBT travellers, " says IGLTA media relations director LoAnn Halden. "Our sense from talking to our gay media partners and member tour operators around the world is that interest in India as an LGBT travel destination is on the rise. "

Decriminalising homosexuality has also had a big impact on pink tourism. "Earlier, the international gay community always had the notion that it was not safe to travel in India but that image has changed. You can now be gay and open, " says Suraj Kumar, operations manager of Indjapink, a gay travel boutique that was launched in 2008 by fashion designer Sanjay Malhotra.

"After the Delhi HC ruling, members of the community have come out. There has been an emergence of gay businesses. With gay-friendly bars, pubs and parties, there is a lot more to add on to the itinerary of a gay traveller, " says Kumar.

Travelling and holidaying in India is also pocketfriendly. "It is perfect for travellers on a budget, as you can get to see a lot of exotic destinations without emptying your wallet, " says Sunil Menon, founder of Sahodaran, a Chennai-based male sexual health project.

While pink tourists do like to connect with the local community, they are mainly attracted to festivals, spirituality, crafts bazaars and antiques, history, culture and architecture, natural landscapes and wildlife, says Prasanna, whose company has tied up with hotels all over south India as well as those in states like Orissa, West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam, and also Andamans. "They come as much for the Taj Mahal as ayurveda, " he says.

The primary concern of most pink tourists is safety and security, so most of the travel companies are manned by members of the gay community. "LGBT people face discrimination. So when a gay traveller comes to India or a place where people don't accept their sexuality, they face harassment, " says Rohit Katara, inbound tour manager of PINK Vibgyor, which was launched in 2010 by Rajat Sangla. "With us they can be themselves. "

Pink Vibgyor has tie-ups with inclusive hotels across India. "Our staff, even the drivers, are sensitised to cater to LGBT tourists. Some of them are also gay or bisexual, " says Katara. The company, which gets two or three enquiries from tourists every week, does tour packages for Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand.

Companies also often arrange weddings and honeymoons for gay couples. "Last November, we made arrangements for a gay couple to honeymoon in Udaipur for seven days, " says Katara.

Indjapink also helps conduct mock weddings. "It is not legal for same sex individuals to get married in India but they want to experience getting married in the Indian style, with a priest, " says Kumar.
So far, most of the companies cater mostly to international tourists. "We plan to start domestic tourism shortly, " says Katara.

The Indian gay community is also not very aware of the existing tour facilities, say travel companies. "We cater to domestic tourists as well but the market is just opening up, " says Kumar.

However, operators are confident that the pink tourism industry in India is all set to boom. "This will really benefit the Indian LGBT community," says Prasanna. "It will generate a lot of revenue, more job opportunities and facilitate cultural exchange, which will in turn fuel the movement here. A lot of development has taken place in the LGBT movement here because of people travelling abroad and absorbing the changes they see there."

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