Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association Launches Waving the Rainbow Flag Proudly
More than 50 LGBT and LGBT-Friendly Hospitality and Travel Businesses Form New Organization to Represent Hawaii’s Growing LGBT Travel Market
by Heather Cassell
A new tourism association aimed at improving LGBT travel to Hawaii was announced on July 11.
More than 50 Hawaii LGBT and LGBT-friendly tourism business leaders are launching the Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association, a professional association of hospitality and travel professionals to provide marketing, outreach, research, and support for the Rainbow State’s LGBT travel market.
The new association is a part of an initiative launched by the Hawaii Tourism Association, an all volunteer initiative of tourism professionals in Hawaii launched five years ago. The goals of the HTA are to identify potential tourism markets ignored by to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the island’s government tourism bureau, says Juergen Thomas Steinmetz, publisher and president of eTurboNews, Inc., which announced the launch of the LGBT arm of the association on Saturday.
eTurboNews is one of the founding members and is providing pro bono public relations to the new association, Juergen says.
The Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association is currently free to join at all levels and to anyone who is interested in Hawaii tourism.
Juergen, like other founding members, believes with marriage equality now being the law of the land following Hawaii’s historic passage of same-sex marriage at the end of 2013, now is the time for the Rainbow State to wave the Rainbow Flag.
Disappointed that the official tourism agency of Hawaii hasn’t reached out to the LGBT travelers and its own LGBT community, Juergen and other LGBT-and LGBT-welcoming businesses lament that the HTA and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau have lost many opportunities to attract queer travelers to the islands.
Five years ago, LGBT travel to Hawaii was declining, according to an article in the Business Journal in 2010. Hawaii still isn’t on LGBT traveler’s radar like Florida or other sunny beach and tropical destinations are according to Community Marketing Inc., which releases a report on LGBT travel annually. For years Hawaii has ranked somewhere in the top 20 destinations for LGBT travelers, according to the company’s annual travel survey.
Girls That Roam has experienced first-hand the Hawaii tourism bureaus disinterest in LGBT travel in the past. Representatives of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau have given Girls That Roam the cold shoulder when attempting to work with them covering LGBT travel to Hawaii for Girls That Roam and other publications. However, Maui and Kauai’s visitors’ bureaus, which are locally based bureaus within Hawaii’s umbrella tourism bureau, have been very warm and welcoming to LGBT travel coverage and travelers.
Hawaii has also had a couple of online and print LGBT travel magazines to help gay and lesbian travelers explore the island paradise in recent years, however it too has proven to be a tough market for publishers.
OutAloha launched in 2012 and folded by the middle of 2014. Lei Magazine rose in OutAloha’s place as a source for LGBT travelers in May 2014, but it focuses mostly on gay travel to Hawaii. The second issue of the magazine was released earlier this month.
Of course, there are several local LGBT magazines covering gay nightlife and LGBT life in Hawaii that LGBT travelers have turned to for information about local issues and to follow the locals, such as eXpression! Magazine.
Yet, the Rainbow State continues to lag behind other destinations that have created a strong LGBT travel message that is attracting LGBT travelers from around the world, the LGBT travel experts point out.
“Hawaii lost ground to places like Las Vegas or Palm Springs, who have organized LGBT tourism messages,” says Chuck Spence, the gay owner of the Maui Sunseeker, Hawaii’s largest LGBT resort
Donna Ambrose, owner of Donna’s Detours, agrees, adding that LGBT travelers have “many options when it comes to vacation planning.”
“Other destinations are way ahead when it comes to outreach,” says Donna, an ally to the community. “Hawaii prides itself on being a melting pot of different cultures and welcoming to all, but stamping a rainbow on license plates doesn’t reach beyond our shores.”
“More needs to be done to cater to the LGBT traveler,” says Juergen.
“HTA still doesn’t understand the market and is not interested in learning more about it,” continues Juergen, talking about how the head of HTA can’t even say “LGBT” right and therefore LGBT travelers get put on the “back burner.”
“[This is] exactly why this organization is timely,” says Juergen, who wouldn’t disclose his sexual orientation, is a nearly 40 year global tourism veteran who has called Hawaii home for 25 years.
Chuck and Donna point out that Hawaii’s internal struggle toward marriage equality cast a cloud over the Rainbow State. Hawaii’s tourism agency is still reeling over the whiplash from threats from the religious organizations that “vociferously attacked many agencies and politicians that were working to bring the LGBT Tourism to Hawaii,” and the recent win of same-sex marriage in 2013, says Chuck.
“I believe they are still a bit shy to speak out on our behalf again,” he says, in spite of Hawaii’s political leaders’ strong support of the islands’ LGBT community.
Donna believes that Hawaii’s public political battle over LGBT rights, in particular marriage rights, was “well-deserved negative publicity” when it started sometime around the beginning of 2009, but Hawaiians’ acceptance of the LGBT community is shinning through.
Before the puritans and mainlanders arrived in the island paradise, Hawaiians revered LGBT community members because they had the capacity to understand both sexes, Chuck Spence, the gay owner of the Maui Sunseeker, Hawaii’s largest LGBT resort, points out the historical fact.
“The Hawaiian’s used to hold ma’hu’s or transgender people in great reverence because they felt they could understand life from the perspective of both sexes,” says Chuck. “Now it’s back and the beauty of the love of the Hawaiian people for everyone shines through again. Love Always Wins!”
Juergen and Donna agree pointing out that Hawaii is a “melting pot” of cultures that is warm and welcoming to LGBT travelers.
It’s also challenging to bring the community together when Hawaii’s population is just 1.4 million residents and its spread out among six of the main chain of islands across 11,000 square miles, Chuck points out.
“It is difficult to have a concentrated voice of the LGBT community,” says Chuck, who is one of the original founding members of the association.
“Having an LGBT Tourism Association is a tremendous advantage for pulling the LGBT Tourism community together despite the fact we have hundreds of miles of ocean between many of us,” says Chuck.
The bottom line is Hawaii should be thinking about LGBT travel and the 40 founding organizers of the Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association know it. They believe money is being lost by Hawaii not paying attention to the “pink dollar.”
“It’s about business, it’s about getting organized, it’s about making Hawaii an even more attractive destination for the LGBT visitor,” says a spokesman for the Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association.
LGBT and businesses welcoming LGBT travelers in Hawaii have high hopes for this new association.
Chuck and Donna hope that being a part of the new association will help introduce their own businesses to LGBT travelers.
Chuck also hopes that “this association will give us the ability to leverage each other’s relationships,” he says.
He is looking forward to being a “strong supporter” who is ready for the opportunity to be able to identify the LGBT-owned and welcoming businesses throughout the Hawaiian Islands he can refer gay and lesbian travelers to and to welcome everyone who hears the association’s message.
“We love to refer guests of ours to stay with a gay owned and operated B&B in Kauai or over in Hana,” he says. “This association will help us know who the businesses are to refer travelers to. We hope that reciprocity helps us all as I do not consider other gay accommodations as competition, but more an enhancement to the experience our community’s tourists feel when they come to Hawaii. Call it Gay Aloha or just plain Aloha, it is what Hawaii is all about.”
Donna agrees adding, “I hope the LGBT Tourism Association will provide both an opportunity for tour operators and others to showcase their offerings and a forum for LGBT travelers to offer feedback to improve service levels.”
The association isn’t recognized by the HTA, but the founding members are hopeful that the agency will “eventually support our effort,” said an unnamed spokesman for the Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association.
“We hope the Hawaii Tourism Authority will eventually support our effort,” the spokesperson says in the statement released July 11.
The Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, whose openly gay Director of Public Relations & Promotions Keli’i Brown, is the only official tourism board to sign onto the association.
The Other Side of the Rainbow
A popular wedding destination, especially Kauai and Maui, The Rainbow State’s same-sex marriage law was passed at the end of 2013. Since then-governor Neil Abercrombie signed the bill into law 5,740 same-sex weddings have been performed for residents and nonresidents of Hawaii as of March 2, according to the Office of Health Status Monitoring. Of those weddings, 821 have happened in Kauai and 1,786 have taken place in Maui.
“Since Governor Abercrombie was able to make full marriage equality the law of the land, hundreds of businesses – straight and queer – have benefited from the economic boon as a result,” says Chuck. “Because of regular interaction with LGBT Tourists, all businesses are fully on board to be sure the community feels welcome here. So the Aloha Spirit is even stronger for LGBT Travelers than it was five years ago.”
But it’s not all about saying, “I do.” In recent years Hawaii has been developing top notch events, such as the Food & Wine Festival (August 29 – September 13), Maui Pride every October, and Hawaii Fashion Month every November.
It’s also an outdoor adventurers heaven, especially on Kauai, Maui, and who can forget surfer’s paradise, the North Shore on Oahu?
“Hawaii, and Maui in particular, is a breathtakingly beautiful place,” says Chuck. “Not just for the natural tropical beauty of the island, but for the beauty of the loving and caring nature of the native Hawaiian people.”
Donna agrees talking excitedly pointing out how the state has changed and that Hawaii offers all of the things that are high on LGBT travelers’ bucket lists: culture, fun, and relaxation.
“LGBT travelers who had shunned the state should feel more open to visiting,” she says.
Chuck and Donna point out that getting to the Hawaiian Islands is becoming easier. It’s even gotten a little bit LGBT-friendlier with Virgin America, an LGBT-friendly airline, starting up new routes to Honolulu, Oahu on November 2 and Kahului, Maui on December 3, according to an April 7 news release.
Of course, Hawaiian Airlines makes you feel like you are already on the islands before you even board the plane.
Hospitality and tourism professionals interested in joining the Hawaii LGBT Tourism Association can register at https://eturbonews.wufoo.com/forms/r1yqesw40y638p5/.
Full Disclosure: Heather Cassell wrote for OutAloha.
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