As Pride Month has been celebrated around the world, underpinning the human right to self-expression, it’s also a reminder that preconceived notions about the LGBTQ+ community remain. It’s been a long walk on an arduous road and, while much has been achieved, we still need to do more.
Our tourism industry may hold the key. By exposing us to people who are different from us – whether in race, culture or how they identify, tourism opens our minds. It has the absolute potential to unite us and shift the status quo.
As LGBTQ+ travel demand continues to surge, it’s important to realise that these tourists are not that different from other tourists. But a lack of understanding means there’s a tendency to pigeonhole or generalise with a one-size-fits-all approach. In reality, the demographics of this market are extremely wide and diverse – just as they are in the ‘straight market’ – from moms or dads with children to adventure-seekers and the party group to retired couples and others.
The timing for us to step up our game has never been better. South Africa was recently ranked among the 50 safest countries for LGBTQ+ travellers and the safest in Africa. The LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index by Asher & Lyric, a travel journalism news source, looked at the LGBTQ+ rights of 203 countries to draw up their list.
Challenges on the continent
That South Africa made it so high in the rankings is thanks to our Constitution. We were the first country in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage and make it illegal to discriminate against anyone for their sexual orientation. As far as other African countries are concerned, Botswana is finally moving in the right direction after its Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 ruling that decriminalised same-sex relationships.
However, many countries remain harsh towards the LGBTQ+ community, despite its exponential growth – like in Nigeria for example. Uganda is also highly charged, where people’s lives are even threatened by their own family members because of how they choose to identify. This is happening throughout Africa, and we can only guess the extent of it.
These are countries with great tourism value and boycotting them may seem the only way to protest their treatment of the community. The LGBTIQ+ traveller, however, while having the power to ‘speak’ with their dollars, realises the LGBTIQ+ community would be the hardest hit by such boycotts, because the most marginalised are always the most affected.
Taking advocacy to Africa
As IGLTA, we also take a strong stand against boycotts; our approach is rather one of advocacy and transformation. In addition to being the LGBTQ+ tourism association internationally, we have a second component, the IGLTA foundation, which centres on research and applying this research to emerging LGBTQ+ markets. This is how the foundation came to choose Africa as its project recently, starting with South Africa, which is also a springboard into the rest of the continent.
The foundation’s work in LGBTQ+ communities is about making a difference, offering support and ensuring the safety of individuals. To this end, it is working with local organisations, many of them underground organisations, while also respecting the laws of the countries in which it finds itself.
Meanwhile, it is imperative that we continue with important conversations. Recently, Equal Africa, a bolt-on conference at the WTM Africa conference, offered us a platform for the first time ever to discuss how to create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ travellers. While exciting, Equal Africa highlighted that it’s not enough to have these kinds of conversations just once a year.
Positioning SA as LGBTQ+ friendly
A major issue in our industry is that we work in silos – this is detrimental, considering tourism’s influence across multiple sectors and communities. Many organisations, while not working in the tourism space, are working in the LGBTQ+ activism space. There’s synergy there and we should all be working together, supporting each other and pooling funds to achieve more.
Collaboration is also needed to bring South African tourism to the world. While we may think the country and Cape Town are famous, many nations are still not aware of us as a destination, not to mention the stiff competition we face. IGLTA’s aim is to position South Africa as a top tourism destination for the LGBTQ+ market.
However, to achieve world-stage positioning, there is much to do in terms of sensitivity training so that we understand what it means to be genuinely ready and welcoming. It can’t be a case of all marketing and no substance.
IGLTA is already involved in sensitivity training for the Japanese, Chinese and Indian markets from a cultural perspective. By the same token, we need to understand the LGBTQ+ market and the nuances within it, as well as the terminology. Familiarity with terminology is an expectation of any traveller arriving at what’s been marketed as an LGBTQ+-friendly destination.
The good news is that we have had many hospitality businesses seeking out the diversity training we offer. Last year’s training programme was attended by a wealth of hotels, tour operators and establishments and, since then, even municipalities and a government entity have shown interest and taken part. Money has been invested, conversations are happening and leading to action. This is a huge step forward.
As more LGBTQ+ travellers start to arrive on our shores, let’s welcome them with open arms – and also with open minds.