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27 Oct, 2015

Why does ITB Asia make such a big deal about promoting LGBT travel?

Singapore – ITB Asia has been promoting gay and lesbian travel for a number of years. This year, two sessions were devoted entirely to the subject. As there are far more important markets in the Asia-Pacific, such as senior-citizens and People with Disabilities, which do not get any attention at ITB Asia, a logical question that arises is: Why so much focus on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) travel?

I posed the question to Mr Christian Goke, chairman of Messe Berlin, organiser of the ITB Asia, at the opening Press conference, “Why is this so? Aren’t there other more important customer segments?” I asked. “Could it be because it happens to be a personal preference of one of the ITB Asia staff members?”

Mr Goke took great umbrage at the question. He brushed it aside with a brusque: “Some questions do not deserve to be answered.”

Really, Mr Goke? Why not? If this is an “Asian” show, should it not be in line with the cultural sensitivies of Asia? Or was this one question your media department did not train you to be prepared for?

This year’s ITB Asia had two events related to the LGBT population. One was a Press Conference to provide an “Update on Global LGBT Tourism” which included a study of the inbound and outbound Chinese LGBT Market. The second was a panel discussion under the theme of Corporate Social Responsibility and Diversity on “How to Market to the Asian LGBT Traveller.” The rest of the ITB events programme was dominated by the usual motley of themes — technology, social media, business and corporate travel, sustainability, airlines, hotels and travel agents. There was only one session on health & wellness, which actually is a much bigger market than the LGBT.

LGBTs abound throughout Asia. Although in most Asian countries they are treated no differently from anyone else, in others, homosexuality is still a taboo subject. If ITB Asia was to hold even a promotional roadshow in one of those countries, would it make a big deal about promoting LGBT travel, especially as a CSR and Diversity activity? Even in Singapore, homosexuality is a grey legal area (Click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Singapore). Other countries have their own set of legal, social and cultural norms. Homosexuality exists and is accepted to varying degrees, but it is not promoted.

Take Thailand for example. It is one of the most liberal countries when it comes to the LGBT population. But the Tourism Authority of Thailand does not trumpet that in its tourism brochures nor market it at global trade shows. Thailand once had an sorry image as a destination for single men. Nightlife is still an active part of the Thai tourism scene but that does not make it a marketable product. You can even get a sex-change operation in Thailand. The TAT does not market that as a niche-market customer segment, either.

The same with casinos and gambling. Beneath the surface, this too is a controversial issue (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_resort). Marina Bay Sands now houses one lone casino amidst a much larger entertainment-shopping complex. People do come to gamble in Singapore, and are certifiably amongst the highest per capita spenders. Does the Singapore Tourism Board overtly promote gambling holidays? Even Asia’s real gambling haven, Macau, downplays its casinos and tries to promote itself as a cultural destination. Casinos also exist in the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia.

As ITB Asia obviously feels it kosher to ignore social norms and promote the LGBT market, why not promote gambling holidays, too?

A couple of years ago, the Singapore Tourism Board was asked in a press conference what it is doing to “promote” LGBT travel. The response was perfect. Nothing needs to be done to “promote” it. Sexual preference is not seen as a tourism niche-market segment. The LGBT community is free to enjoy all the products and services, sights and sounds which Singapore does promote. What they do in their bedrooms, as consenting adults, is their business.

No doubt, there is a market for the LGBT segment, just like any other segment such as the millennials or shoppers or ecotourists. As the demand rises, market forces will take over and supply-side products and services will emerge, without any help from ITB Asia.

If Mr Goke and the Messe Berlin executives had a better understanding of Asian society, they would know that parents and families across Asia are extremely uncomfortable with overt promotion of an LGBT lifestyle as being “fashionable.” It may be acceptable in Germany, but if this show calls itself “ITB Asia”, it needs to show a higher level of respect for the cultural and social norms of Asia.

Messe Berlin may chose to press ahead anyway, but Mr Goke should be ready to face another question. Next time, hopefully, he will be better prepared to answer it.