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A gay-friendlier Kingdom

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Cambodia’s openness to homosexuality contributes to its growing reputation as a destination where gay tourists can travel without fear of prejudice

Photo by:

Rick Valenzuela

Drag diva Deedee dances August 22, 2008, at Blue Chilli, a popular gay-friendly bar in Phnom Penh, in this file photo.

 A livelier scene across the border

THE beaches of Patong and Pattaya in the Thai island haven of Phuket have attracted waves of gay travellers for years. The website gaypatong.com says Phuket is “one of the world’s most exciting Gay playgrounds” on par with the likes of Amsterdam, the Spanish resort town of Sitges and San Francisco. Phuket has been at
the vanguard of an effort by tour operators to get their slice of the growing
gay travel market, which Mintel International Group, a market-research company in Britain, said would grow by more than US$20 billion worldwide between 2006 and 2010. Travelocity, which has offered a database of gay-friendly hotels since 2005, includes hotels certified by the gay-tourism marketing company Community Marketing as enforcing non-discrimination policies.

FROM tastefully decorated gay-owned restaurants where "the all-male staff are gorgeous and friendly" to spas frequented by gay expats that guarantee an "absolutely magic" massage from male masseurs, Utopia Asia tips gay travellers to Siem Reap.

While a far cry from Thailand's Phuket Island, where Speedo-clad beefcakes paint an exuberant scene, Cambodia is offering an increasing number of venues catering to gay travellers.

"People living here have a very open approach to gay people. That's been recognised, and so more gay travellers are coming here," said Dutch national Dirk Degraass, who designed and manages the aptly named Golden Banana guesthouse in Siem Reap.  

He says the number of gay travellers in Siem Reap, the jump-off hub to tour the temples of Angkor Wat, has steadily risen over the three years he has lived in Cambodia. To keep pace with demand, the boutique guest house has expanded twice, mostly recently opening a third addition three months ago.  

Even venues that have made no effort to attract gay customers seem to be benefiting from Cambodia's growing reputation as a destination where gay people can travel without experiencing prejudice.

La Veranda Resort in the coastal town of Kep receives a steady stream of gay tourists, according to its manager, Craig Pollard.

"You can come here and feel there's no problem; you can feel no one will look down on you," said the Australian.  

Laurent Notin, with Indochina Research, which has offices in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, said Cambodia is well-suited to cultivating a niche tourism market to target specific demographics, as the country has yet to draw the numbers of a major tourism destination.  

"Big companies are unlikely to come and push them out," he said, referring to the prospects of small hotels trying to attract gay travellers. "And niche markets are often lucrative - a small, but focussed, market can be very profitable."

 
A tough tourism year

In dismal economic times, any growth market may be worth jumping on. Tourism Ministry officials earlier this month announced that January tourist arrivals dropped by more than 2 percent compared with the same period last year - a sign that a key economic driver is flagging in the face of the global economic downturn.

Looking to keep people interested in travel even as their budgets shrink, a US-based travel company catering to gay travellers sees promise in Cambodia. Last month, it opened a new tour of Southeast Asia that includes Cambodia, along with Thailand and Laos. 

Howie Holben, head of Spirit Journeys, bills his tours as "spiritually uplifting gay travel" and says he has found Cambodia to be a "very accepting environment". 

The company is tapping into a destination that has largely gone under the radar, but that is already registering as a rising star. For Purple Dragon, Asia's longest-running travel company tailored to gay travellers -  with routes to eight countries in the region - Cambodia is the second-most popular destination behind Thailand, according to Douglas Thompson, managing director of the company's headquarters in Bangkok.

Holben distinguished his tours from those of other gay travel companies. "Typically, there would be gay-oriented experiences like going out to gay nightclubs," he said. "But we're not going to experience gay life. We are just offering to the gay community the opportunity for a spiritual journey."

Spirit Journey's three-week trips, the first kicking off in November, focus on historical sites and include meditation exercises. The visit to Cambodia is dedicated to the Angkor temples around Siem Reap.

And for the time being, observers see Cambodia's "pink" tourism tailored more to ensuring accepting spaces than to providing lively spots for socialising.

 
Unprejudiced hospitality

Craig Duncan is on his fourth trip to Cambodia. For the 40-year-old from Australia, it is an "absolute priority" to search for the availability of gay-oriented venues before travelling somewhere - and Cambodia has fit the bill. 

"Going online and finding gay-friendly places made a big difference. I was able to find out Cambodia would be a good place even before I got here," he said. 

For Duncan, a gay-friendly hotel means "if you meet someone, you can take them back there, or if you're travelling with you're partner, they don't try to put you in different beds."

His impression has remained positive. He says he has not experienced an insult or any incidents of discrimination in the nearly five weeks he has spent in Cambodia as a tourist. In Southeast Asia, he observed, there is a sense of intimacy among people of the same sex that is comforting for gay visitors to see.

Duncan said the "services" for gay travellers have expanded along with the growing number of gay travellers to Cambodia. He has noticed a growth in the number of male prostitutes, or "money boys", in nightclubs in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

But the scene remains limited, he said, and he was eager to see Cambodia become livelier in its nightlife - bars and dance clubs - for gay visitors. Phnom Penh has a handful of gay bars, and Siem Reap offers a few gay-friendly watering holes, but it is a low-key scene compared with the globe's most storied gay destinations.

As Duncan put it, a gay destination in Thailand "would mean more".

And travel writer Nick Ray says it will likely stay that way for the near future. 

Ray has authored Lonely Planet guides for Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and other countries in the region.

There has been a doubling of venues catering to gay visitors in Cambodia over the last three years, he's observed, but he thought the scene would remain subdued compared to that of some of its neighbour.

"It's following the Thai pattern more than the pattern of some of its conservative neighbours - like Vietnam, where it's considered a social evil - but I don't think it will reach the scale of Thailand."

Govt position unpredictable

Ray doubted there would be a public outcry if Cambodia's tourism scene for gay travellers became more pervasive and visible, but he said the possibility of a government backlash was difficult to predict.

"All it takes is one or two senior officials to decide they don't like it." But, at the moment, it's off the radar, he said.

With a former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who has been a vocal supporter of equal rights and same-sex partners, no history of homophobia among the public and no laws against homosexuality, local tourism operators have a supportive backdrop to carve out a space specifically for gay travellers.

But for the time being, Cambodia's official line, if there is one at all, oscillates.

Tourism Minister Thon Khong would only say he had not reflected on the prospect.

The Cambodian Association of Travel Agents would not consider promoting Cambodia as a gay-friendly tourism destination, said one of the group's top representatives, Ho Vandy. He was adamant, however, that hotels should not be allowed to turn away customers because of their sexual orientation.

He said tour operators were not opposed to gay visitors coming, but a campaign to woo them was out of question.

"We have a traditional culture, and we don't want foreigners promoting homosexuality [amongst Cambodians] in our country, but for gay foreigners who wish to visit Cambodia, that is OK."

Nick Ray saw it differently. He said the extent that Cambodia continues growing as a destination for gay travellers could largely depend on the attitudes of local people towards homosexuality.

"If more Cambodians come out, it will create a synergy that could have the industry take off."

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