The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Travel goes gay

The Indian government may not have made homosexuality legal yet, but it looks as though Indian society is becoming increasingly tolerant of the gay community. First, there were movies depicting gay themes — from the lesbianism of Fire to the faux gay offering of Dostana. And now even tour operators are customising trips to India meant for gays.

And why not? After all, gays are not quite so taboo anymore. On any given day, Indian gay websites report events being held exclusively for them. From gay parties at hip lounges to gay pride parades (one is to be held in Delhi today), Indian gays are making themselves seen and heard.

Of course, foreign travel agents like the Thailand-based Purple Dragon do carry such cautionary advice on their websites as “India is probably not the best place to go for someone who wants to experience a lot of gay nightlife or entertainment.” Still, sensing the breakdown of taboos and the newfound liberalism in Indian society, tour operators are queuing up to get a share of the pink dollar.

Says Lalit Bisht, director of Trail Blazers Holidays, a Delhi-based travel operator, “We understood the potential of gay travel in India and began devising customised travel programmes for gays who want to visit the country.”

Though Bisht says that his holiday packages are meant for foreign and Indian LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) couples and singles, others stress that these tours are mostly aimed at foreigners. Says Prakash George Mathen, a travel operator from Kerala, “I offer these packages to foreign gays. Not many Indians approach us because even today most of them are closet gays or lesbians.”

It’s not only travel agents who arrange such tours. Organisations run by Indian gay communities have also jumped into the fray. For instance, Indja Pink, an Indian gay travel boutique started by fashion designer Sanjay Malhotra, offers exclusive, customised luxury travel packages for male travellers. “Indja Pink was set up to promote gay tourism in India. We provide tours (group and individual) for both Indian and global gay couples,” says Puneet Kumar, manager of Indja Pink. Still, some travel agents are discreet about these tours. “We organise everything — from gay-friendly chauffeurs to gay-friendly hotels. But we operate in a discreet manner. In Kerala, for instance, we take care not to disclose the sexual orientation of our customers. But in a place like Goa it doesn’t matter,” says Mathen.

Many operators also advise gay couples not to indulge in public displays of affection. “People are a bit conservative here, so I ask them not to indulge in such acts while sightseeing,” says Bisht.

Gay rights activists and the LGBT community welcome the coming of gay tourism in India. “For the past few years Trikone, a gay magazine published from San Fransisco and catering to the desi queer community, has been listing accommodations in Delhi meant for single gay women. Things do seem to be moving in the right direction,” says Anindya Hajra, founder member of Pratyay Gender Trust, a sexuality and human rights advocacy group in Calcutta.

Agrees Malobika, a member of Sappho, a Calcutta-based LGBT activist forum, “India is becoming a hot destination for gays. In fact, a year ago a renowned travel agency got in touch with us for an interaction between gay foreign travellers and the local gay community. But very often they look up the Internet and set up meetings on their own.”

However, despite such “progress” the fact that the country continues to criminalise the gay community is a nagging worry for travellers. Media consultant Deepak and gay rights activist Prince Manvendrasinh Gohil advise gays travelling to India not to divulge their sexual orientation. “They should check the credentials of travel agents and not reveal the fact that they are homosexual unless they are travelling in association with an NGO. Otherwise they could end up being victims of a scam,” he says.

Despite the words of caution, tour operators, hotels and resorts catering to gay tourism have found a lucrative niche segment. Clearly, India is not just shining; if tour operators have their way, it’ll soon be brimming with pink money.

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