Thailand’s chance to tap into the lucrative market for gay visitors (The Nation [Thailand])
Some 1,500 people – mostly gay men from Asian countries – attended “Nation V” in Phuket last Friday and Saturday. The event is an annual social gathering for gays, lesbians, and gay-friendly folks from many countries to enjoy music, making friends, and activities like swimming, volleyball, surfing, diving, and sunbathing.
For the many participants who still live “in the closet” because of legal or traditional discrimination in their societies, the event offers a chance for them to be themselves. Attendees danced at many theme parties to the latest club music, spun by world-famous DJs.
This was by no means the first big meeting of gays and lesbians in Thailand. Earlier this year, a group of scholars from all over Asia met in Bangkok from July 7 to 9, when researchers, non-profit groups, and people interested in gender studies shared data. Some 800 to 1,000 local and international visitors attended the seminar. And various parades and contests with gay themes have been held in recent years.
Economically, it’s good for Thailand to be hosting big gatherings like Nation V, especially considering the slowdown in tourism after the tsunami. Around the world, gays and lesbians are a newly discovered and lucrative target for the tourism industry. Yet many countries, including Thailand have yet to fully explore this segment of the tourist market.
Last weekend, the host hotel for the event, the Crowne Plaza Karon Beach Phuket, was fully booked – along with the nearby Baan Karon Buri Resort, the Karon Princess Hotel, and the Hilton Phuket Arcadia. Their guests lent extra vibrancy to nightlife venues and restaurants, especially in Patong. An official from the Phuket Tourism Association estimated that the Nation V partygoers spent a whopping Bt30 million in the province. Marketers worldwide believe gay tourists individually spend more than general tourists.
Of course, Bt30 million is not much compared to huge economic losses caused by the tsunami. But imagine the impact of crowds like this visiting Phuket, every weekend, and similarly large numbers hitting tourist spots around Thailand.
Nation V, organised by fridae.com, is considered to be Asia’s largest gay fete.
A previous Nation V party in Singapore attracted about 8,000 people. That year’s party was able to draw such a large crowd because the organiser had built a strong base of members and managed to gain support from the government, as part of Singapore’s “loosening up” in regards to being tolerant of diversity, specifically in terms of its attitude towards homosexuals. But the Singapore government last year turned down the organiser’s request to hold a smaller seasonal gathering.
The present government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, while claiming to continue the non-discriminatory stance famously initiated under the previous administration, appears to have jumped to the conclusion that having gay activities is contrary to the “public interest”.
In other words, it means gays have the right live and pay taxes in Singapore, but not be seen as promoting their lifestyle in public. Worse, a government agency also employed an old stereotype, in stating that gay parties have helped contribute to the recent rise of HIV transmission rates in the country.
Despite Singapore’s multi-faceted modernisation, not enough is being done to enhance its people’s understanding of gender and sexual issues.
According to a news report earlier this year, when a Singaporean teacher was found to have HIV, the whole school and students’ parents were informed. Panicked parents asked the school administrator to clean up everything from the teacher’s computer keyboard to the toilets the teacher had used. They were afraid that their children could be infected by touching what the teacher had touched.
From the outset, Fridae’s Nation V simply drew gay visitors to enjoy the sun, beaches, and dancing. The successful event also put Phuket on the world tourism map as a gay-friendly getaway. Phuket would do well to work to maintain this new reputation, as many other major destinations would like to further tap this niche market too.
“Many of the attendees had never been to Phuket. They were excited to visit. They have heard how Thai society has been tolerant and open to diversity,” said Stuart Koe, CEO of fridae.com.
In the same event, a lesbian group from Malaysia organised the Girl Pride Asia event, with film screenings and other social activities.
Gay or lesbian visitors enjoy the same kinds of activities that other tourists like. They want to find a nice, peaceful, and friendly place to relax and enjoy their time with their friends.
Visitors at the event were truly impressed by the warm welcome, professionalism and non-discriminatory mindset shown to them by the local government in Phuket, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and health service facilities like Patong Hospital. They will surely share stories about this back in their homelands.
Thailand has a long history of tolerance towards homosexuals. Many big gay-friendly events have been held here in recent years. The government and private companies should spend some time thinking how to make the most of this tradition, rather than worrying about old homophobes that scream out in fear that people of different sexual orientation could harm their children.
People are attracted to Thailand not only because of the cultural and natural attractions on offer, but also the open-mindedness, a value that the government does not need to spend huge money on to promote.