LGBT vacations

In 2017, Responsible Travel launched a series of LGBT travel guides covering destinations that are generally very open and friendly towards the LGBT community, as well as those with much more discriminatory laws. We will be adding new destinations to the series regularly.

See all our LGBT travel guides:
LGBT vacations in Costa Rica
LGBT vacations in Japan
LGBT vacations in Morocco
LGBT vacations in South Africa
LGBT vacations in Uganda
Coming soon: LGBT vacations in India and Jamaica

LGBT in South Africa. Photo by Niko Knigge
Are these guides to LGBT vacations?
No. Responsible Travel’s vacations focus overwhelmingly on wildlife, cultural experiences and activities such as hiking, cycling or kayaking, not experiences such as gay (or straight!) clubs or LGBT cruise ships and resorts. These guides are not about gay vacations. They aspire to answer some of the questions that LGBT travelers may have when visiting certain countries for the first time, and to do so in an honest way. Responsible tourism aims to provide benefits to destinations and local communities, but it also needs to support travelers, and not shy away from difficult issues, which is unhelpful, and above all, irresponsible.

Why do LGBT people need dedicated travel guides?
Sadly, the reality is that many countries still have laws which discriminate against the LGBT community. Same sex sexual activity may be a criminal offence; same sex marriage or partnerships may not be recognised; discrimination may be legal; and even activities such as kissing or holding hands may result in penalties. It is important to familiarise yourself with the laws of the country you are visiting, to help you decide whether or not to visit, as well as to understand how open to be about your sexual orientation while in the destination.

In some countries, the situation is more complex than simply reading up on the legal issues. South Africa, for example, has very progressive anti discrimination laws and was one of the first countries – and the only one in Africa – to legalise same sex marriage. However, outside of the more liberal, metropolitan areas, deeply conservative attitudes prevail, and harassment and violence towards LGBT people is commonplace. LGBT travelers, then, will need to know what questions to ask their vacation companies to ensure their safety, to find out if experiences such as community homestays are feasible, and to understand how open to be about their relationships or gender in more traditional regions.

Sometimes it works the other way around. In India, sex between men is criminalised, but the country’s famously hospitable attitude towards tourists means that gay tourists should encounter no discrimination. In Japan, too, homosexuals receive no legal protection, yet this very private nation does not believe in interfering in other people’s business, and LGBT people will be treated no differently to anyone else.

AT Responsible Travel, we strive to encourage all tourists to travel as respectfully as possible, taking into account local customs, beliefs and attitudes. Frequently this means dressing conservatively, particularly at religious or spiritual sites, and it often means avoiding public displays of affection, regardless of your orientation. PDAs are culturally inappropriate across much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, so our advice is the same for all couples: no kissing, cuddling or sometimes even holding hands in public. If you do see two men (and it is usually men) walking hand in hand or with their arms around each other, it is almost certainly a sign of friendship.

There is a fine line, of course, between being respectful of local customs and beliefs, and of giving in to a nation’s homophobic views. People need to make up their own minds how far they are willing to go. Our guides aim simply to inform all travelers – and tour companies – about the issues, to help them decide if they are comfortable traveling to certain destinations, and whether or not they are willing to abide by each country’s laws and social constructs, in much the same way as a woman traveling to Iran must decide if she is happy to cover her hair and wear a manteau. Some people may not wish to “support” such discriminatory beliefs; others won’t want them to get in the way of their travel experiences, and believe they have the right to travel where they choose.

LGBT in Japan. Photo by sookie
Why do so many countries have discriminatory laws?
Over the course of our research we have discovered that, historically, most countries did not discriminate against LGBT people, and there are many documented cases of gay or bisexual kings and rulers, and examples of same sex relationships in literature and art. Many of the first anti gay laws were in fact enacted by colonial European governments in the 18th and 19th centuries. In imposing their puritanical “Christian” values, they frequently banned traditional religions, many local customs, and same sex relationships.

Now, of course, it is Westerners returning to these former colonies who are calling for the repeal of these antiquated laws, but in many cases the local population, particularly in Latin America and Africa, is now far more strictly Christian than much of Europe, and they choose to maintain these prohibitions. In Africa, homosexuality has been denounced as “un-African”, or even a “white” conspiracy to introduce sinful practices and discourage sex between African men and women.

Another reason for the backlash against the LGBT community – specifically with regards to LGBT tourists – is the often mistaken association with sex tourism, which supports local sex workers and can encourage human trafficking. Worse, some people believe that LGBT tourism is synonymous with child sex tourism, and destinations such as Morocco, which was once a notorious destination for this, have sought to discourage gay travelers in case this reputation returns.

Why are you promoting openly homophobic countries?
Uganda, Jamaica and Russia have made the headlines for their shockingly homophobic laws, with lengthy prison sentences on the cards for those found to be engaging in same sex sexual activity. Uganda has even proposed the death sentence, although this was never carried through. Activists have been murdered, homosexuals have been publicly “named and shamed”, and violence towards LGBT people is rarely condemned; the perpetrators know they will get away with it.

With this in mind, it is entirely understandable that many LGBT travelers – or those of any orientation – would want to boycott these destinations. However, we don’t agree that places should be closed to anyone as a result of their sexual preferences, and travelers who want to see gorillas, or Bob Marley’s former home, or St Basil’s Cathedral, should be able to do so. We aim to provide as much information as possible to people wishing to visit countries with discriminatory laws and intolerant views, where harassment and aggression towards the LGBT community is well documented, so that they can make up their minds whether or not to visit. We want them to know the most important questions to ask their vacation companies, and to encourage these companies to research and familiarise themselves with the issues so that they can provide the most helpful answers. Above all, we want to enable LGBT travelers to travel in a way that keeps them safe, and allows them to be free to enjoy the culture, wildlife and natural attractions in these parts of the world, just as we would wish for any other responsible tourist.

LGBT in Uganda. Photo by Niko Knigge
Written by Vicki Brown
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