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TOURISM: Phuket prepares for gay fest (The Nation [Thailand])
30 Oct, 2005

Gays, lesbians, bi- and transexuals set to descend on holiday isle for Asia’s biggest party of its kind

Phuket’s post-tsunami high season for tourism will next week adopt a new agenda mapped out for pilgrims making their way to Asia’s largest gay and lesbian party.

The resort island is scheduled to host for the first time what the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual) community calls the annual Nation party, spanning three days starting on Friday with 1,000-1,500 GLBTs expected to attend.

Singapore was the venue for the last four Nation parties, Asia’s largest event of its kind. They were usually planned to coincide with Singapore’s Independence Day on August 9.

However, Singapore decided to discontinue the event this year, saying it was contrary to the public interest, even though the annual party generated US$6 million (Bt244 billion) in tourism revenue last year.

Organised annually since 2001 by Fridae.com, the largest GLBT network in Asia, past parties were a major attraction for Asia’s GLBT community, drawing 6,000-8,000 participants each year.

The parties may have been too successful.

“This phenomenon [of banning the parties by Singapore] has grown out of homophobia and discrimination,” said Stuart Koe, CEO of Fridae.com.

“The government has not given any reason other than saying they are contrary to the public interest. Gays are being seen as offensive to the conservative mainstream society in Singapore,” he said.

For this week’s version in Phuket, Fridae.com has budgeted over Bt25 million, with co-hosts Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Altogether, nine parties will be staged over the weekend at places including the Karon stadium, Crowne Plaza hotel and Phuja Nirvana bar and restaurant.

The parties will feature world-class DJs and stars from the US, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“It will be breathtaking in scope and diversity,” Koe said, adding that the parties would be promoting the theme of “Embracing Diversity”.

“The gay and lesbian community is composed of a large diversity of cultures and individuals. We have to embrace the diversity among ourselves even as we encourage the rest of society to embrace us as a part of mainstream society,” he said.

The organisers put together the idea of going for an international venue and found Thailand a potential site, he said. Phuket was approached as it has a culture of tolerance and a world-class hospitality infrastructure with direct flights from all the major cities in Asia.

Will Owen, general manager of Oriental Leisure, coordinator of the event, said tourists usually came around this time, which was good for Phuket.

“Gay tourists are an important market for Phuket, and they are well liked by people in the tourist industry. They are relaxed and easy-going, have a lot of money and will be good for the economy after the tsunami, particularly when arrivals by air are down 60 per cent this year,” he said.

At the fifth Nation party, about 15,000 condoms as well as 15,000 lubricant packs will be distributed, said Trai Isarapong, of Population Service International (PSI Asia).

PSI will work with a local NGO from Patong hospital, the local gay foundation Rainbow Sky Association, and the Thai US Public Health Collaboration (TUC) to carry out a comprehensive safe-sex and HIV-education campaign at the party.

Trai said MSMs ( men who have sex with men) would make up the biggest group of party-goers so PSI aimed to disseminate knowledge about safe sex, though Aids was a health and behavioural issue affecting all people, not just gays.

Somchai Silapanong, director of the Phuket Tourism Association, said the event was expected to generate Bt30 million for the local tourism industry.

Somchai, who sits on the Kata-Karon municipal board, said authorities had given the green light after Fridae agreed to respect Thai traditions and abide by the law.

Suwalai Pinpradab, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand office in Phuket, said the TAT was not opposed to the festival as gay and lesbian tourists caused no harm to others.

“We are open to all tourists. The gay and lesbian groups should be treated like any other tourist group. This group of tourists has considerable purchasing power,” she said.

The festival is about individual rights and is now allowed in many big cities around the world, notably New York and Sydney, she added.

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