Aluxurious stay at a palace in Udaipur, an ayurvedic massage by the sea in Kochi, a spiritual session with a guru in Varanasi or just a leisurely sightseeing trip across Delhi, Agra or Jaipur, does seem like the perfect holiday plan for any couple. This ideal holiday gets even better if you are gay or lesbian and want a customised holiday for your partner and you, without uncomfortable stares or having to explain why two men need a double bed. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) tourism is an emerging trend in India, thanks to the rise in travellers from the US, Europe and Australia.
According to Community Marketing Inc. (CMI) a communications and marketing agency based in the US, over 80% of 3,865 LGBT Americans that were sampled said they would visit or have visited India and prefer it over other destinations in South Asia. "India ranks as no.2 desired cultural or adventure destination just behind Thailand, but ahead of China, South Africa and Japan," says CMI founder and president Thomas Roth.
For travel operators catering to gay tourists, choosing hotels where the staff understands what being gay is about, or using drivers that don't mind their customers - two men or women - holding hands in the back seat, are small instances that help them make a gay tourist comfortable. Indjapink, a tourism agency that conducts
customised tours for gay men, gets around 2-3 tour bookings in a month that goes up to 10 bookings in peak season (October to March). "Apart from the US and UK, there is a big market from Greece, Australia, South Africa and Mexico," says Abhinav Goel, founder of Out Journeys, which gets around 70-80 clients per month.
Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, Kochi, Tamil Nadu and Goa are hot destinations for gay travellers. Pink Vibgyor, another agency, which has clients from Europe, US, Middle East, China and Thailand, gets a number of requests for "adventure or spiritual holidays" from gay travellers. "They want to do fun activities together over a week or a month. This can be a pan-India holiday starting from the hills in the north to the beaches down south. They love interacting with the local gay scene and we arrange gay parties for them," says co-founder Rajat Singla.
While Nepal has been the popular gay tourism destination this side of the subcontinent, India's rich culture gives it an edge over neighbouring countries. Sunil Babu Pant, a legislator and founder of Pink Mountain tours in Nepal, says gay visitors to India and Nepal are different from those who go to say Thailand and Bangkok. "This is a mature traveller, in his or her 30s who has had his/her share of fun, and now wants a meaningful holiday," says Pant. These holidays are not sex tourism, insists Pant. "We do not provide escorts, there is no sleaze involved. It is a holiday like any other, only the staff is made aware of the needs of the clients and they are made to feel special," says Indjapink founder Sanjay Malhotra.
Mock weddings are a fun feature added to the itinerary of many gay travellers. Both Indjapink and Pink Vibgyor say they can arrange a Hindu wedding ceremony, for the experience, "We do some mock weddings in heritage hotels in Rajasthan, it is a beautiful setting, and something new for them to take from their holiday," says Singla.
While it does seem like a perfect holiday for gay couples, lesbians will have to wait for their share of this gay tourism, as most operators do not cater to women. "We do have some women clients but it hasn't picked up as much," says Singla.
If the power of the pink pound is rising in the UK and 'gay buying power' on the ascendant in the US, the case isn't much different in India. At $500 for 3 days to $5,000 for a longer "across India" tour, LGBT travel packages do find many takers here.
Even standard travel operators are tapping into this very lucrative set of "double income and no kids" income couples from US and Europe. Vijay Thakur, President of Indian Association of Tour Operators says, "They understand they have to cater to this market to improve their business and though they may not publicise very openly, most operators go that extra length for these high-profile tourists."