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Anti-LGBT Laws In Russia: The Travel Industry Responds

The IGLTA, Rainbow High Vacations & tour operators weigh in
08-14-2013  By: Terrilyn Kunopaski
!!! Anti-LGBT Laws In Russia: Travel Industry Responds
For over a month, Russia has been making headlines thanks to a new legislation prohibiting "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors."

In 2012, the country welcomed nearly 56,000 Canadian travellers, and all eyes have been in its direction with the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and FIFA World Cup in 2018.

But the new laws – which are indisputably anti-gay, when you get right down to it – are sparking widespread reaction across the globe and while some are calling for a boycott of the Olympics, others are suggesting a boycott in travel.

"When such prejudice prevents Americans from traveling without fear in another country, that prejudice should also be condemned, and appropriate action taken by persons in travel and tourism," writes Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's travel guides, in a recent blog post.

Frommer notes that some of his authors who are gay "will no longer risk travel to Russia as long as the 'pro-gay propaganda' statute is in effect."

"Some among them are calling for a broader boycott of all travel to Russia by all Americans, gay or not, as a protest against this denial of human rights," he says. "They refer not only to the new legislation, but to several recent incidents of physical assaults by prejudiced young Russians against gay persons, none of which seemed to interest Russian police."

John Tanzella, president, IGLTA
According to John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), Russia has not traditionally been considered a popular choice among LGBT travellers, referencing the country's "lack of affirmative laws and visible LGBT infrastructure or events."

"The (new) laws will, unfortunately, hurt tourism in Russia," Tanzella told THN. "They create fear and resentment among LGBT travelers and their allies."

"Gay travellers tend to be at the front of the curve when it comes to exploring emerging tourism destinations," said Liz Devine, president at Rainbow High Vacations in Toronto. "Travel to Russia has been popular in terms of the new opportunities to visit and travel to experience history and culture, but not as a LGBT destination.

"It is an expensive destination with emerging tourism infrastructure, so appeal is restricted to a narrow range of travellers. Although a few LGBT tour operators added Russia as a cruise port of call, there has been some backlash in the form of criticism from people who question what the true level of personal safety is when in destination."

Devine said her agency is not currently recommending that LGBT people travel to Russia as tourists, or suggesting travel to Russia as part of European travel itineraries.

In addition, she said the companies that were developing LGBT tourism services in Russia no longer are advertising those services.

"The companies that were including Russia on their cruise itineraries are not currently offering Russia ports of call or land tours," she explained. "The messaging from Russia lawmakers is that LGBT tourists are not welcome, and the personal safety of our clients is always paramount."

Liz Devine, president, Rainbow High Vacations
Liz Devine, president, Rainbow High Vacations
That said, neither IGLTA or Devine advocate for boycotts on the basis that they "have the unintended effect of also hurting LGBT businesses and citizens," in the words of Tanzella.

It's fair to say, considering that the new legislation may not be receiving such widespread attention if it weren't for the upcoming Olympic Games, but as such, the issue has been given a platform that has the power to influence change.

"Everyone has a personal opinion on whether more can be achieved from boycott, changing the venue, or increasing visibility," added Devine. "I agree with the position of the LGBT activists in Russia who are asking people to speak out and be visible, and demand that the IOC support full equality for all participants, rather than boycotting the games."

Companies such as On The Go Tours and G Adventures told THN they have no plans to cancel current operations in Russia in response to the new legislation.

"Our travellers have not expressed any concern," said a spokesperson for G, which operates three tours in the country. "We will only change or cancel the itineraries if the safety of our passengers is in jeopardy."

As for Devine, she said their focus is on promoting destinations working towards full legal rights for LGBT persons.

"For example, in the U.S. and Mexico, some states have full legal rights while it is under discussion in others," she explained. "Their tourism associations are promoting training programs and investing in market-specific promotions to attract LGBT visitors, there are active and visible LGBT communities, and residents are actively engaged in debate about the importance of full human rights for LGBT people, or are in favour of full rights. Knowing that you are welcome and that you have the same rights as others and that your safety is as important as that of 'straight' tourists is a factor when LGBT tourists decide where to spend their vacation dollars."

Other destinations she said are the most LGBT-friendly and welcoming include: Iceland and most of Europe, especially Holland, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, France, etc.; Curacao, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun in terms of Sun destinations; and in the U.S., Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Provincetown and Palm Springs.

"When destinations become visibly welcoming to LGBT tourists, the benefits extend to everyone – through increased safety, protection, appreciation for and growth of diversity, and economic growth," Devine said.

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