Gays find welcome in Thailand at party banned by Singapore (Agence France Presse)
PHUKET, Thailand, (AFP) - Thousands of people filled a sprawling resort compound on Thailand's holiday isle of Phuket, the final day of an international gay festival banned by Singapore but welcomed here.
The Nation party attracted some 2,000 revellers, about one-quarter as many people as the event last year in Singapore, for three days of music and dancing.
Billed as an event "empowering gay Asia," the party attracted people from across the continent, as well from Australia, Europe and the United States -- all welcome arrivals at beachfront hotels still working to finish rebuilding from the December 26 tsunami which killed almost 5,400 people last year.
"It's for a good cause. It supports gay Asian pride," said Adrian Ho, 32, a travel agent from Los Angeles who flew here specifically for the party where revellers in bathing suits have spent their days under the sun at the pool or the beach before dancing the night away.
"It's still more conservative here," he said. "I think that people here are not as vocal as they are in the States."
"Given that it's only the fifth year here, maybe it takes time to build," he said, referring to the relatively small crowd compared to similar events in Europe or North America.
The Nation party, organized by the gay website Fridae.com, began five years ago in Singapore. But in June, police in the city-state said they had turned down an application for this year's event, saying it was "contrary to public interest."
Organizers found a new home for it in Thailand, which was keen to lure tourists back to Phuket after the tsunami, and where authorities have become increasingly aware of the value of gay tourists.
"We have an extremely good working relationship with the businesses in Phuket and the local municipal government of Kata-Karon," Fridae.com's chief executive Stuart Koe said.
"At all times, we have been told that gay people are treated no differently from anyone else, and we deeply feel welcome by the people of Thailand," he said.
Peter Semone, vice president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the party had filled several hotels in Phuket on the first weekend of high season, and that gay tourists have become an increasingly attractive niche market for Thailand.
"The gay sector is just another market segment that fits in well in Thailand because Thais have a reputation for being broad-minded, tolerant and fun-loving. In addition, the gay sector is relatively high-yield," he said.
Organizers declined to say exactly how high-yield the party was, but the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said that generally, gay tourists are a growing segment of the country's tourism market.
"TAT considers gays and lesbians as the new marketing target which increases in number year by year. Most of them come from the US," spokesman Tanes Petsuwan said.
Jojo Toraz, 39, a flight attendant from Hong Kong who came to Phuket for the party, said Thailand seemed more relaxed in its attitudes than other countries in the region, even if gays remain on the fringes of society.
"They still have this homophobia thing in Singapore. Hong Kong is the same way. They harass us, they have frequent raids" on gay bars, he said.
Rhett Pickering, 38, of Hong Kong, said he thought the hotels and restaurants at Phuket were pleased with the influx of gay tourism business, even if many people here were somewhat wide-eyed.
"They're learning about the value of the gay dollar this weekend," he said.