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Opening up to gay tourists

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Bars and boutique hotels are tapping into a growing, multimillion-dollar niche market by putting out the welcome mat for gay and lesbian travellers

PETER OLSZEWSKI

Linga Bar owner Martin Dishman says he’s proud to have opened Cambodia’s first gay bar.

SIEM Reap is successfully tapping into the substantial revenue generated by the gay travel market, as an increasing number of travel agents, hotels, and tour and promotions companies target what's known as the "pink dollar".

According to a 2006 US Travel Industry Association survey, nearly half of gay and lesbian tourists seek a destination that is "gay-friendly", and Siem Reap has seen a surge in businesses marketing themselves as gay-friendly.

Dirk De Graaff and his partner Tum Hantitipart have been managing the gay-friendly Golden Banana Guest House and Boutique Hotel for two years.  De Graaff said it's difficult to assess the increase in gay guests, but he estimates it to be about 40 percent.

"The gay-friendly label means that when tourists arrive they know that we will not look at them strangely if two guys book in, or two girls book a room and want to sleep together. In many other hotels, if two guys come in, they are offered two beds because they are presumed to be friends instead of partners," he said.

Discretionary income

Gay tourism has become a substantial global market. A Tourism Intelligence International report in 2000 said 10 percent of international tourists were gay or lesbians, accounting for more than 70 million arrivals worldwide.

This segment has few family responsibilities and often has large pools of discretionary cash for travelling. American gay and lesbian tourists are estimated to generate US$55 billion a year, about 10 percent of the total US travel industry.

Popular gay internet Asian accommodation guides list at least ten gay-friendly Siem businesses, and De Graff said many Siem Reap hotels are now jumping on the gay-friendly marketing bandwagon.

"We are gay-owned, some staff are gay, the management is gay, and I think that makes a difference. But, if a five-star hotel wants to market themselves as gay-friendly, then that's good because it signals that there is nothing weird about being gay."

We won’t look at them strangely if two girls book in and want to sleep together.

Nick Downing, general manager of Hotel de la Paix, said the hotel is gay-friendly. "We see it as a small but important market for us, and it's growing, especially in the context of Siem Reap."  

He has also noticed an increase in gay travel operators.

"We have had two tour operators come through in the last month specialising in gay tourism, from Singapore in particular, but there are also more independent gay travellers staying with us now."

Downing attributes this to cultural attitudes in Siem Reap and Cambodia in general.  "The people are very accepting, I don't feel a sense of prejudice here," he said. 

At Siem Reap's popular Linga Bar, owner Martin Dishman said he's proud that when he opened the bar four years ago, it was Cambodia's first gay bar.

Dishman has since opened the boutique The One Hotel, Hotel Be and a spa for men. He said he can't quantify the increase in gay tourism in actual numbers, but revenues at the Linga Bar have increased annually.

"In the first year, 60 percent of our business was straight and 40 percent gay. The business has increased but now we have more gay customers than straight, and that leads me to believe there are more gay visitors coming to Siem Reap," Dishman said.

He added that opening the Linga Bar and The One Hotel was a business decision based on his being gay and targeting a market, and that a lot of his success is due to location and timing.

"There were no gay bars in Siem Reap, and I was only the fourth business on this street," Dishman said.

He said he also wanted to be a role model in the community. "That is why the place is very open, accessible to everyone. We are not here to hide anything in dark rooms."

Like De Graff from Golden Banana, Dishman also sees the increase in marketing toward gay clientele.

All things to all people

"What I think gets overdone is where huge chain hotels adapt their marketing strategies, when you see an advertisement for a Hyatt with a male couple embracing in the pool. It puts me off," Dishman said. "To me it's wrong; they're trying to be all things to all people."

De Graff also sees a difference in the gay market attracted to Siem Reap. The party crowd might come to Siem Reap for a few days, but they behave differently because they want to see the temples, "I think the interesting thing about Siem Reap is that it's a cultural destination, which draws a different crowd of more culturally-minded people. There are less of the people that want to dance all night and sleep all day," De Graff said.

"The guests in this hotel generally want to get up early to see the temples and in the evening they want a nice drink or a nice dinner and that's about it."

Dishman agreed. "People are coming here to see temples. Siem Reap's gay bars are usually closed by midnight, and it's not typically a party place." 

Siem Reap may never boast an annual gay pride celebration, as in many other tourist-oriented cities, but gay business is here to stay.

DISCLAIMER: DEAN WILLIAMS RECENTLY TOOK OVER THE LEASE OF THE GAY-FRIENDLY BAR BLUE CHILLI TOO.

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