Interstate and international borders are opening post COVID-19 restrictions, but do all travellers feel welcome?
There are two questions Charlie Douty asks himself before heading off on holiday.
“First question – is it safe? Second question – will I have to go back into the closet?”
- A gay couple is travelling the country to document their experiences on social media
- They say while the country is welcoming, the inclusivity is not always well known to the LGBTQIA+ community
- Experts say more needs to be done to let people know everyone is welcomed and included
They’re common questions for many LGBTQIA+ travellers, Mr Douty says, even in Australia where some believe inclusion “isn’t an issue anymore”.
He and partner Michael Kabourakis are a year into their tour of the country, having hit coastal and regional sites across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales.
The couple have documented their road-trip through a string of glistening selfies and sweeping drone shots.
Why? Firstly, for the memories, and secondly, to fill what they say is a void of LGBTQIA+ representation in media and marketing in the tourism industry.
The couple is known as the Husbands That Travel to more than 35,000 Instagram followers, who have joined their journey to create “the very first gay and LGBT+ travel guide” of Australia.
“A lot of the time it’s not necessarily that it isn’t a gay welcoming town, it’s that you don’t know,” Mr Douty said.
“[You don’t know] if it’s worth taking that risk of being yourself or if it’s just easier to pretend you’re brothers.”
LGBTQIA+ advocates say now is a “critical time” for Australia to be welcoming, with borders opening and international events on the horizon like Sydney WorldPride 2023 and the Brisbane 2032 Summer Olympics.
‘The work is not done’
Mr Douty said overall the couple have had “inclusive and welcoming” experiences around the entire country, but still felt “afraid to show [their] sexuality” in some instances.
They said venturing into new communities without knowing if all were welcome, was daunting, and kickstarted their mission to fill in the unknown for their followers.
“When you google ‘gay travel’, usually what pops up is cities, bars, clubs … you don’t hear about the Ningaloo Reef, you don’t hear about Fitzroy Island, you don’t hear about all the natural hotspots,” Mr Kabourakis said.
“And that’s the beauty of Australia, Australia is so beautiful. I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to miss out.”
In “Australia’s largest national survey of the health and wellbeing of LGBTQI people” led by La Trobe University in 2020, only around 30 per cent of some 6,800 participants felt accepted “a lot” or “always” in public and at mainstream venues and events.
Mr Douty said members of the community often carried previous experiences of “trauma and rejection” and valued knowing a place was welcoming before they arrived.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘everything’s fine … everything’s equal’,” he said.
“The work is not done.”
A ‘critical’ time for tourism
Now was a “critical time” for the tourism industry to reflect, according to Dr Elise Stephenson, who was named among Google’s Top 50 LGBTIQ+ Australian leaders.
She said inclusivity and representation was “100 per cent” on advocates’ radars, given most Australian states had removed interstate travel restrictions, more were allowing international arrivals and there were “really big events on the horizon”.
In a first for the southern hemisphere, Sydney is set to host WorldPride 2023, the largest event of its kind, including 17 days of marches, festivals and conferences.
Organiser Interpride said the New York hosted event in 2019 saw about five million people gather over the main weekend alone.
“And they’ll not only sit in Sydney, but they want to come and visit the [Great Barrier] Reef, head out to Uluru or other locations.”
Dr Stephenson said Australia will be on the “international stage” approaching the Brisbane 2032 Summer Olympics and “urban and rural” areas alike needed to prepare to welcome the “infinitely diverse” global community.
“LGBTIQ+ communities cut across every sector of society, every ethnic group, every age, every income bracket,” she said.
“How can we make sure they feel safe, supported, recognised and visible when it comes to these really big, public events?”
What makes a welcoming operator?
Australia did make Lonely Planet’s top “15 most gay-friendly places” in 2021, but only with Sydney coming in at number 15.
“That reflects where we’re at,” Louise Terry, president of Gay and Lesbian Tourism Australia (GALTA) said.
“We’re certainly known as a destination … but I think in terms of direct marketing, there’s still some way to go.”
GALTA works to educate and connect operators with the LGBTQIA+ travel market, which Ms Terry describes as “resilient” and “travel ready”.
Ms Terry said being inclusive was a “matter of being consistent” from displaying a welcoming LGBTQIA+ website, to social media references, and hiring and training staff that were prepared to include all.
Dr Stephenson said a “rainbow flag” symbol was a good start but it needed to go further.
She said an operator could be inclusive by having an understanding of the barriers travellers face, engaging community groups, supporting pride events, having diverse marketing and being aware of other friendly, local services.
“At the heart of Australia, we do have the intent and just need to display it a bit better,” she said.
‘We welcome you with open arms’
Whitsundays sailing and cruising company marketing manager, Jamie Meurant, hosted the Husbands That Travel, to offer “a bit of guidance” to LGBTQIA+ travellers.
As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community himself, Mr Meurant said the Whitsundays and Queensland at large was a “very comfortable and safe place”, but it was not always clear to travellers.
“Unless you have connections to this area, you may not know that we’re very gay and lesbian friendly,” he said.
Mr Meurant said as a small business “it’s really important to show your support for all of the communities that support you”.