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August 14, 2014

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LGBT travel in China an unrealized market

THE annual purchasing power of China’s LGBT community is estimated at US$470 billion and the travel industry is a major player, prompting tourism companies to get more serious about tapping into what could be a lucrative market.

The first survey to explore the purchasing power, preferences and motivations of China’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community was released last Friday in Shanghai.

LGBT travelers are generally considered to have a high disposable income because they are branded as DINK — dual income, no kids. The World Tourism Organization 2012 Report on LGBT Travel also quoted various global surveys that show LGBT people tend to travel more and spend more than the average person during their trips.

“The trend is very similar to the global market, where travel and hospitality have always played a huge part,” Thomas Roth, president and founder of Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), the survey’s issuer, tells Shanghai Daily.

“It is only starting in China, but it’s developing really rapidly and many international companies, who already have experience serving the LGBT community in other countries, will soon be looking at this new emerging market. And Chinese companies will also be quickly expanding their business to this new area,” he says.

The San Francisco-based firm released the report at the First Annual China Pink Market Conference, attended by major LGBT organizations in the country and companies interested in developing the emerging market.

The survey shows that 23 percent of gay/bisexual men and 34 percent of lesbian/bisexual women have spent a vacation/holiday of five nights or more in the past 12 months, higher than the national average.

“I travel with my gay friends as well as my straight friends who know my real sexual identity,” says Johnny Huang (not his real name), a closeted gay who takes at least two overseas trips a year. “It’s very nice to go out there, be my real self, get energized and come back to daily routine work.”

As Roth suggests, some Chinese companies are already taking the first step. Liu Ping, who is straight and CEO of Beijing-based conference-organizing and destination-managing firm China Star Ltd, launched China Star LGBT Travel, the company’s new program focusing on the LGBT community.

In June, the company organized the first rainbow tour — traveling around a few American cities including participation in San Francisco Pride.

The tour was led by Wu Youjian, the first Chinese mother to openly support her gay son on TV in 2005.

“We can see the potential in this field, but it is still a bit different in China,” Liu tells Shanghai Daily in a phone interview. “Those who have come out are generally younger, while in Western countries a lot more older people have come out, and they have more spendable income.

“I don’t think we are that different from other travelers, but I do often pay attention to whether the destination and the services are gay-friendly,” she adds.

As a test stone, Liu didn’t promote the trip widely, but she expected to see 20 participants. The group went with eight people, including her brother and sister-in-law whom she persuaded to join. A lot of younger people who wished to join the group couldn’t afford the cost of two weeks in the US.

The tour had a great impact in the community, but was not commercially successful. Liu’s decision to invest and expand in this emerging market has puzzled her travel industry peers.

“You are really looking very far into the future,” many Chinese travel agency bosses told her.

“I know it will take a long time because it’s not only investment of money and efforts, but also emotionally, to show the community we sincerely support equality and we are not just there to make money,” Liu says.

“The opportunity to have the exposure to how LGBT communities are in other countries can be inspiring and helpful to the Chinese LGBT community, who are much younger.”

Liu plans to provide more options on Pride packages, and hopes to include more activities with local LGBT groups to discuss topics including “How do I prepare for retirement alone?”

Apart from the outbound travel, some companies are also looking at promoting China as a LGBT destination, and it is also moving slowly.

“The opportunity and potential are large, but we are still working on the research to see how to best arrange the services and products together, as well as how to better promote to foreign travelers,” says Philip Zhao, who works for a global hospitality firm.

“It is not very easy in that sense, because many foreigners still see China as an enclosed and traditional environment that is not very tolerable for the LGBT community,” he says.

“But China is large, both in terms of the land and its population, and many major cities are shockingly gay-friendly, although it is true that the service industry may need better training in this regard.”

The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) provides a list of seven companies on China’s mainland, four among which are LGBT organizations rather than travel or hospitality services. Liu’s China Star is on the list, together with Pullman Lijiang Resort & Spa in Yunnan Province.

(Zheng Xin contributed to this article.)


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