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Gay tourists are the objects of affection

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This brochure from the convention and visitors bureau in Bloomington, Ind., is an example of the city's innovative pitch to gays and lesbians. (Courtesy Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau)

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Philadelphia is trying to attract gay and lesbian travelers through its "Philadelphia: Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay" ads. (Courtesy Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation)

If you’re gay and thinking about taking a vacation, Massachusetts has a message for you: Come visit, please!

This January, the state launched a $50,000 campaign aimed at making it one of the country’s most popular destinations for gay tourists. Advertising in print and on the Web, the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism is touting attractions—from gay icon Bette Davis’ birthplace in Lowell to gay-themed nights at the Roxy, one of the state’s largest clubs—that it thinks resonate with gay and lesbian travelers. If it’s successful, a state best known for its rabid sports culture could rival places like San Francisco as a gay hot spot.

“We’re trying to let people know that there’s a whole state here that’s friendly to gay travelers, not just Provincetown and Northampton,” says Lisa Simmons, the office’s spokeswoman. “We want gay couples to know that they can take their kids hiking in the Berkshires or camping on Cape Cod, and they’ll find that we’re open and accepting.”

Massachusetts isn’t the only place targeting gays and lesbians. Competition for this demographic has grown fiercer since the economy plunged into recession. At a time when tourist dollars are drying up, gay travelers have even become a desirable demographic for states, cities and towns not usually associated with that community.

Gay dollars could be critical at a time when U.S. domestic travel is dropping—8 percent in 2008 and expected to fall again this year, according to the market research firm TNS Global. Part of the attraction is a perception that gay and lesbian tourists may be more immune to the recession than their straight counterparts, experts say.

The gay travel industry accounts for some $70 billion in spending in the U.S. each year, according to Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based research and marketing firm. Some places report that, on average, gay travelers shell out double the amount each trip than straight visitors. That’s not even factoring in the growing number of states moving toward legalizing gay marriage, which one day could bring in millions of dollars for destination wedding locations.

It’s difficult, however, to accurately gauge the gay tourism market because states and municipalities don’t survey visitors’ sexual orientation. In fact, certain economists quibble with suggestions that gay Americans are better positioned to weather the downturn.

That doesn’t jibe with what many communities are reporting, though. Most places that market to gays and lesbians say business appears steady.

“The industry feels that gays and lesbians will continue to travel,” says Jeff Guaracino, spokesman for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., who helped put the City of Brotherly Love on the map as a gay destination. “As a group, they have more buying power. There are fewer children in the household, which means more opportunity to travel at the last minute and more discretionary income.”

Massachusetts wants to cash in on traditionally popular gay vacation spots like Provincetown, as well as its historic legalization of gay marriage in 2003. But some economists suspect that this campaign is a response to concerns that gay dollars may shift to states that recently legalized gay marriage, such as Connecticut and Vermont.

“It reflects an awareness of increased competition,” says M.V. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. “Marriages are big business. The average wedding, even in a recession, costs more than $20,000. That’s potentially big bucks in a tough economic climate.”

Massachusetts may have some obvious attractions, but other places eager to lure gay travelers to their communities face a tougher sell. It typically starts with an introductory campaign. In Chapel Hill, N.C., for instance, that boils down to letting gays know that the city is “gay friendly”—a pitch that the town’s tourism council is making in advertisements that will run in gay publications.

“We’re still living down Jesse Helms,” says Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau. “But Chapel Hill is a liberal bastion in a state that still has a little bit of a conservative legacy.”

In addition to emphasizing tolerance in its ads, Paolicelli’s team is hawking attractions that they believe will appeal to well-heeled gay tourists. Chapel Hill’s proximity to the University of North Carolina gives it cultural cachet, and there are antique stores and restaurants to entice furniture buffs and food lovers. All told, she anticipates spending $25,000 in outreach to the gay community.

Paolicelli is modeling her campaign on the one in Bloomington, Ind., another unlikely gay tourist destination that has courted the community in recent years. Bloomington has fashioned itself into one of the premier regional attractions for gays and lesbians. Its tourism council spends roughly $20,000 a year on brochures and advertisements targeted at gays and lesbians and works in concert with organizations like the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana—named for the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey—to organize gay-themed exhibits. There’s also a pride film festival of movies and documentaries relating to gay, bisexual or transgender life that was launched five years ago and continues to grow.

Beyond special events, the city highlights attractions like the Indiana University art museum and local wineries and breweries in its outreach efforts.

“There’s an idea that both coasts have a monopoly on gay tourism,” says Rob DeCleene, the city’s director of tourism. “There’s a significant gay population between those coasts, and we have unique events and attractions that appeal to the GLBT traveler. Not everyone is looking for a city or coastal resort.”

Though it is tough to track how much money gay travelers inject into places like Bloomington and Chapel Hill, communities that target gays and lesbians report that they hear the market is still strong. Columbus, Ohio, for example, believes that gay travelers are acting as an important hedge against the downturn.

“The gay and lesbian market is an important part of our plans,” says Scott Peacock, media relations manager at Experience Columbus, a destination marketing organization. “What we’re seeing so far is that this market hasn’t suffered as much. Time will tell, but we’re hoping and planning that it will be recession-proof.”

Still, some economists think banking on gay dollars is naive. They dispute the findings of groups like Community Marketing, pointing out that it is extremely difficult to get an accurate demographic snapshot of the gay and lesbian community. Researchers at the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies maintain that on average, gays earn less than heterosexuals and that findings like Community Marketing’s only reflect the most affluent sectors of the gay population.

“This only captures folks on the higher end. It’s not representative of the full range of LGBT folks,” says Badgett. “My studies found that gay men earn less and face discrimination in the workplace. There’s a lot of vulnerability already built in, so when the economy is tight, it gets tougher. It’s entirely possible they’ll travel less.”

E-mail: bal2137@columbia.edu