Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dominica gay cruise ship flak follows on heels of glowing LGBT global tourism report sponsored by UN group

It’s some kind of law of human nature. Just when everything appears to be going hunky-dory something totally unexpected always seems to blow up in the collective faces of everybody involved. That’s what happened recently in the wake of the release in February of the 2012 United Nations World Tourism Organization’s Global Report on LGBT Tourism.

The report, which included a glowing statement by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, noted that the growing acceptance of LGBT people around the world was allowing other countries to prosper from tourism while helping to spread harmony and understanding among cultures. The Madrid-based organization released the groundbreaking report in cooperation with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association of Fort Lauderdale, and it included reports by several other experts on tourism from around the globe.

Then just a few short weeks later, all hell broke loose in the Caribbean, which was one of the areas where the report noted more work was needed in terms of greater acceptance of diversity.

By now there probably aren’t too many people left who haven’t seen the photographs of the two naked men engaged in sexual intercourse on the stateroom balcony of their cruise ship in broad daylight in the port of Dominica and heard the stories about their arrests on March 21, overnight stay in jail, guilty pleas for indecent exposure, high fines and early returns in disgrace to California.

For sure, it will be a long time before anyone forgets the story of what happened when the Atlantis Events-chartered Celebrity Summit cruise ship pulled into the harbor at Roseau, Dominica, with 2,000 queens aboard in late March and dropped anchor.  The island’s natives no doubt will never forget it, and that’s good enough reason for an all-gay cruise not to return there in the foreseeable future.

That’s how Bob Witeck of Witeck Communications, one of the participants in the creation of the LGBT travel report, sees it.

“The trends are global and encouraging, and it is good news for LGBT travel opportunities – but it is not at all a green light for us to be open and unafraid in a number of high-risk destinations around the globe,” Witeck said.

Witeck said that while much progress has been seen in terms of acceptance in Europe, much of Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Africa and the Pacific, other destinations are more problematic. He noted that a government sponsored anti-gay crackdown was underway in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In fact, homosexuality is still illegal in 76 countries and punishable by death in five of them. The U.S. Department of State website warns American travelers to know the laws of the countries they plan to visit and not to violate them. It adds a U.S. Passport is of no help to someone arrested for a crime in a foreign country.

“With notable exceptions, the Caribbean is a challenge for organized gay travel entrepreneurs,” Witeck said. “We know that Puerto Rico, Cuaraco, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Barts and St. Maarten’s, generally speaking, are welcoming and often popular with gay travelers. Jamaica is notoriously hostile as have been some other destinations – including Dominica in this light.”

Witeck said that he believes Atlantis Events tries to educate its passengers about laws, customs and expectations in its destinations, but the two passengers  apparently “pushed the boundaries of public sex that would be problematic in many countries,” not just the Caribbean.

As it happens, Dominica is not listed as a member nation on the United Nations World Travel Organization’s website.

Immediately after the arrest of the two men in Dominica, the island’s tourism minister, Ian Douglas, issued a statement saying officials do not promote travel to Dominica based on a group’s “orientation.” The official apparently made the statement in response to a large outcry from island residents about the all-gay cruise being allowed to dock in Dominica. Many residents also claimed the men had not been punished severely enough.

Edison James, the United Workers Party leader of Dominica, said the international media had unfairly criticized the nation for its response to the men’s actions and urged the government to “do something about it.”

Dominica News Online, which covered the arrests of the two men and subsequent developments, conducted an online poll about whether all-gay cruises should be allowed to dock in Dominica, and the response was favorable, although it is unclear how many of those who took part in the poll were island residents. The results showed 71 percent of the respondents saying yes and 27 percent saying no.

After the controversy broke and some critics called for a boycott of Atlantis Events, its president, Rich Campbell, said the travel planning company had done nothing wrong and he planned to return the cruise to Dominica in the future.

Everything considered, Witeck said prudence should be on the agenda. One issue that apparently has remained unexplored is the impact of the controversy on any LGBT people who might happen to have been born on or live on the island. In response to an e-mail inquiry, an unidentified editorial representative responded that there are no gay bars on Dominica, and that the LGBT people who live there live “undercover” because of widespread anti-gay bias among island residents.

“I think it wise for any gay travel operator to avoid the likeliest hostile climates, simply because the potential for danger for risk appears higher especially for visible groups of gay men,” Witeck said. “For solo or couple travel, it is arguably easier to pass under the radar most of the time, and not put yourself at risk in the same way.”

In terms of conduct, Witeck said “it should go without saying” that sexual conduct in public puts most people – straight or gay – at risk, especially in religious nations with the least tolerance.

UNWTO and IGLTA officials were unavailable for comment because they were attending a global tourism conference in Brazil.

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