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A matter of pride

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaStepping out gaily from Shanghai to Mumbai, LGBT travellers head out to spend their pink dollars, as hotels swoon and other guests scratch their heads.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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John Cleese as Basil Faulty from Fawlty Towers, with a few Teletubbies

Can't fault this: for hotels, 'tis the season to 'come out

HAVING completed a riotous, if expensive, education, liberally dosed with beer pong and occasional economics, my son returned home from Ann Arbor Michigan to doss with his dad and eyed the decor curiously. At length, in a heroic display of perseverance, he strung together a few words to form not one, but two, grammatically correct sentences.  It was a proud moment for his doting father. That's the power of university. "I really like the design of the flat," He said. "Did you do it?" "Yes", I replied. A pause. Then another question. "Are you gay?" The proud moment passed.

Moments like these are when divorced fathers yearn for a Marlboro pony to ride off into the sunset in glorious slo-mo with a bevy of busty Amazons. Wrestling with an alligator could serve the same purpose, but Hong Kong flats are far too small to clobber a croc with the right degree of machismo and minimum damage to the Bang & Olufsen.

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It seems creativity is not a valid heterosexual pursuit any more. Blame it on the brilliant Queer eye for the Straight Guy television series. Or the side-splitting Modern Family.

Growing up in the Sixties, when 'gay' meant happy, and 'pansy' was a flower, our long-haired hippie generation loved everyone, with equal, indiscriminate ardour, as long as The Beatles or James Taylor were playing on the radio and someone was paying for drinks. Today, lines are firmly drawn. Now Hilton has launched a bold 'Stay Hilton Go Out' campaign to woo travellers who favour an alternative lifestyle. On offer are packages at over 460 Hilton hotels at gay-friendly destinations around the world as well as a newsletter and  links to LGBT events and Pride Celebrations. "From San Francisco and Chicago to Sydney, Berlin and everywhere in between, plan your next gay travel getaway with us," Hilton urges travellers.

The term LGBT refers to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered grouping, and the travel industry has been preoccupied for some time to garner a bigger share of their 'pink' dollar from specialised cruises to Pride Parades.

It is an interesting and imaginative approach, a brave step, but not the first. There is an International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association that goes by the unlovely abbreviation, IGLTA, and holds a feisty annual convention (next one 8-10 May 2014 in Madrid, sponsored by heavies like TURESPAÑA, the official Spanish tourism body). There's the Gay and Lesbian Tourism Australia with a similar remit.

And scores of sites like Booking Gay and Gay Travel already cater to that market. Ironically, Booking Gay offers 437 choices for hotels and gay-friendly events in Germany but only three in India and two in China. Still, Gay Travel's list of the top 10 recommended Asian destinations may surprise some. These are, Shanghai, Bangkok, Koh Kood (misspelled Koh Hood), Mumbai, New Delhi, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

{What does a dog-friendly hotel do with cat-lover guests? Hotels need to offer quality service and amenities, regardless of guest gender, colour, or proclivity

It's not all roses in Europe however. With the UK's Daily Mail citing an EU report on homophobia that says more than "a quarter of gay people have been subjected to violence, abuse or hate-filled threats in the past five years," it is small wonder a niche market has developed, promising a pink utopia wherever it can be found.

Several hotels, destinations and booking sites have long favoured gay and lesbian customers. Other hotels and locations get found and slowly acquire a reputation as word spreads. The Sukhothai hotel in Bangkok has been a favourite of the perfectly coiffed set. Not that it made any noise or strained to reposition itself in any particular docket. But the elegant wood, silk and mirrors have proved irresistible for many. In fact it has acquired a name with all discerning travellers regardless of stripe. This perhaps as it should be.

Hilton's move as a mega-hotel chain cranks things up to an industrial level, marking down gays and lesbians as a specific profile to cater to, much like senior citizens, kids, dog lovers, divers, women, or Christians. One problem with over compartmentalising can be that you run out of space for your regulars as more and more rooms get devoted to special interests.

In its heyday, the Hilton Hong Kong had a keen focus on Japanese guests with several floors offering customised Wa No Kutsurogi rooms with dedicated Japanese-speaking staff, yukata robes and so on.  Godzilla could have checked in and seamlessly blended into this Japanese idyll. But, as in all boom and bust cycles, the hitherto resilient high spending Japanese business travellers started drying up. And there was a problem. What to do with those tatami floors when beefy hamburger-chomping Godzilla-bashing Americans wandered in looking for a 6ft bed?

In 1994 that particular Hilton came under the wrecking ball (to later emerge as the gleaming Cheung Kong office tower) after Hutchison Whampoa bought out the remaining 20-year Hilton contract for US$125m, ending the reign of  its legendary and much-loved kilt-wearing general manager, James Smith. Of course, the Hilton Hong Kong's demise was not on account of plummeting Japanese guests, but economics.

It can be dangerous to segment too much. Women's floors are another case in point. They have been in and out of fashion at various times. Dukes, London, has rooms especially for lady guests, as does the Bella Sky Comwell, Copenhagen. India's ITC group has a few hotels with Eva Floors staffed entirely by women. Some properties in Taiwan still offer special dedicated floors for women with special amenities and service. The Naumi in Singapore has a floor for women and The Fleming boutique hotel in Hong Kong has 'Her Space' that serves up a beauty kit, jewellery case, face steamer and more.

The old Lee Gardens Hotel in Hong Kong had women's floors too with pink slippers and other feminine gear. It proved a miscalculation. Women also travel with their boyfriends and husbands and paramours and expect amenities like a hairdryer and smaller bathroom slippers in all rooms. The women's floor shrank down till it was just a few rooms together on a single floor, described by PR spin doctors as a "women's cluster". What on earth is a women's cluster? In any event, it was Cluster's last Stand and the entire hotel was pulled down to make way for a new office block and mall.

History is replete  with examples of too much segmenting. What does a dog-friendly hotel do with its cat-loving guests? A hotel needs to first and foremost serve up quality service and amenities, regardless of guest gender, colour, age, or proclivity. Some things do not go out of fashion.

A woman needs her impedimenta no matter who she is travelling with. A gay or transgendered person, a metrosexual or heterosexual, or a travelling hippo, all need a comfy bed, a clean bathroom, a welcome smile, and an affordable rate. It is extraordinarily brave to 'come out' or, in Hilton's case 'go out', and travellers will watch the episode play out with keen interest. It could be the next big thing. Or not.

Meanwhile it is time to redecorate my flat and add a lick of paint. Perhaps I'll hop on a harmonica-playing Marlboro pony and litter my home with Timberland shoes and farm gear instead.

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