A romantic island getaway in the Maldives. A safari in Kenya. A visit to the pyramids in Egypt.
Apart from being popular on bucket lists, these vacations have one thing in common: Their destinations have strict anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation. In the Maldives, gay sex may be punished with lashes and up to eight years in prison. In Kenya, it can bring a sentence of up to 14 years. And in Egypt, the authorities are known to throw people in jail for simply waving a rainbow flag.
Paradoxically, these trips are also all offered by travel companies founded by and catering to members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In interviews, the founders of four of these companies, which take a combined total of 3,000 tourists — most of them American — abroad each year, said they were providing a safe way to meet a growing demand for trips to countries that criminalize L.B.G.T.Q. people.
“I’m gay and I want to visit these places,” said Darren Burn, the founder of Out of Office, an inclusive luxury travel company. “And if I want to visit these places, then there are other gay people who do, too. So if we can enable them to do it in a fun, exciting and safe way, then that’s exactly what we’re here for.”
A world that isn’t always friendly
By some metrics, certain L.G.B.T.Q. Americans have it easier when it comes to planning their next trip. Same-sex couples tend to have more disposable income because they are less likely to have children and more likely to both be employed, according to census data. Married gay men have the most spending power, with a median household income that is more than $25,000 higher than their straight and lesbian counterparts.
Even so, being out and getting out can be at odds in a world where many places are hostile — and sometimes outright dangerous.
“There is no place on earth where you can be 100 percent safe while being L.G.B.T.Q., at least while expressing it,” said Lucas Ramón Mendos, a lawyer and the research coordinator at ILGA World, an L.G.B.T.Q. human rights group. “What we can say for certain is that where there is a legal framework that strictly, explicitly criminalizes certain expressions, the likelihood of getting into trouble is a lot higher.”
According to ILGA World maps that track the world’s sexual orientation laws, there are still more than 60 countries that criminalize consensual same-sex relations. Punishments range from incarceration to the death penalty. Uganda notably just enacted a law calling for life in prison for anyone convicted of having gay sex, and in some cases even death.
Scratching those countries off the list of possible destinations shrinks the globe dramatically: parts of Asia, more than half of African countries, and practically the entire Middle East — with the exceptions of Israel and Jordan — become off-limits. (And that’s not even taking into account countries like China and Russia that target L.G.B.T.Q. people indirectly, by censoring speech, for example.)
Yet L.G.B.T.Q. travel companies frequently visit such places.
“I’ve never had an issue. I haven’t heard of anyone having issues,” said Bryan Herb, co-founder of Zoom Vacations, which operates small tours in countries such as Kenya, the Maldives, and Morocco, all places where gay sex can bring prison terms. “There’s no there there.”
Safer for some than for others
While U.S. diplomatic missions help Americans who get in trouble abroad, Angela Kerwin, a senior official at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said they do not collect data in a way that would allow them to track cases involving L.G.B.T.Q. travelers specifically.
“The laws that criminalize L.G.B.T.Q. status or conduct around the world are more often than not used to target and punish people from the country in question,” said Jessica Stern, the U.S. special envoy to advance the human rights of L.G.B.T.Q.I.+ persons. “That’s not to say that L.G.B.T.Q. Americans and their families aren’t at risk when they travel, but we are not the primary targets of those laws.” (For Americans who also carry a passport from the country they’re visiting, this guidance might not be as straightforward, Ms. Kerwin said. They might be treated as citizens by the local authorities.)
None of the four travel company founders reported any clients who’d had legal run-ins, though some mentioned minor brushes with locals. Their clientele tends to be older and male, with transgender travelers a rarity.
Safety concerns can be especially daunting for transgender people headed abroad. They already face hurdles to updating travel documents and are more likely to live in poverty than other L.G.B.T.Q. people.
“I have recently had a flight canceled and they were rerouting me through a very hostile country for L.G.B.T.Q. folks, and I was going to be laid over there for nine hours,” said Jay Brown, a senior executive for the Human Rights Campaign, who is transgender. He asked not to name the country for fear it could hurt working relationships with advocates in the region. “If I had a health care emergency in that country, I don’t know what would happen to me,” he said.
Mr. Brown ended up taking three trains and three flights in 26 hours to avoid the layover. “I ran from gate to gate at every airport, and ran from train to train,” he said. “My bag, of course, was not at my destination.”
Most countries that criminalize same-sex relations lack a legal and regulatory framework when it comes to gender transition.
“I wouldn’t say that because these laws target only homosexual acts, that transgender people are safe,” said Mr. Mendos. “It’s exactly the opposite, actually.”
Pink money in a gray zone
Many countries may just depend on the influx of tourist dollars so much that they’re willing to give tourists — whether straight or gay — special treatment.
The tourism industry is a top contributor to Kenya’s gross domestic product and accounts for more than half a million jobs in Morocco. Hospitality also drives the economy in the Maldives, where three local men recently received prison sentences for having homosexual relations, while dozens more have been investigated.
“In every country on earth, the law doesn’t necessarily match the reality,” said Mr. Burn, whose company offers package deals for symbolic same-sex marriages and honeymoons in the Maldives, which start at around $5,000 per person. “You know, it’s illegal to drink alcohol in the Maldives, but you go to every resort and you can drink alcohol.”
It’s in that gray zone that L.G.B.T.Q. travel companies operate. Yet when they’re lining up suppliers and hiring local workers, they are anything but ambiguous.
Robert Driscoll, who has run the small-tour operator Venture Out since 1998, said that to avoid unpleasant surprises, it was important to be “clear with suppliers about what the nature of the group is and making sure that they’re OK with it.”
He said that years ago, when he first started taking gay Americans abroad, it wasn’t uncommon for his inquiries to suppliers to go unanswered. Now, he receives emails daily courting his business, some from unexpected places.
“We would love the opportunity to work with your organization to create tailored itineraries for your LGBTQ+ travelers in Tanzania,” read a recent email he received from a small safari operator.
Under a colonial-era law, Tanzania punishes consensual gay sex with up to life in prison, and in April, the government shut down thousands of websites and social media accounts linked to gay groups and people. Neighboring Kenya, also a popular safari destination, has recently experienced a rise in anti-L.G.B.T.Q. violence.
Safaris are among the most expensive trips L.G.B.T.Q. travel companies offer, with prices running into the five digits. Mr. Driscoll, who has led many groups to watch wildlife in Africa, said he recently had a same-sex couple cancel their trip to Tanzania after reading a travel advisory on the State Department website warning travelers about “targeting of L.G.B.T.I. persons.”
The Tanzania Tourist Board, as well as the tourism agencies of the other countries discussed in this article, did not reply to requests for comment.
Weighing the risks and ethics
Ms. Kerwin of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said prospective travelers should go beyond the State Department travel advisories and read the agency’s yearly human rights report, which includes detailed information on the situation of L.G.B.T.Q. rights for each country.
“Never can you cover every eventuality,” she said. “But if you’re informed, then you can make a decision as to whether or not you actually want to travel to that country.”
“Any legal and safety information we provide to clients before they pay us a deposit,” said Robert Sharp, a co-founder of Out Adventures, a small-tour operator based in Canada that serves a largely American clientele. “It is our moral and legal obligation to allow them to decide if it is right for them.”
All travel companies surveyed for this article strongly recommend that clients take out travel insurance, and some even require it. Out of Office and Out Adventures also offer 24-hour hotlines to respond to clients’ questions and emergencies.
Yet travel companies are not legal firms, and they say that the best they can do is give travelers enough information to make an informed decision. Out Adventures clearly states the laws and limitations of each destination on its website. When traveling to Tanzania, for example, clients are advised to practice discretion since “even heterosexual PDAs are frowned upon,” referring to public displays of affection.
The page for Out Adventures’ tour to Egypt, including a Nile River cruise and snorkeling in the Red Sea starting at $5,495 per traveler, explains that “gay dating apps should be avoided” and discourages clients from trying to participate in the “underground gay scene” of the larger cities.
The Egyptian authorities have been reported to harass and entrap members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community on social media and torture those in custody.
“Not only do we want to protect the group,” Mr. Sharp said, “but we don’t want to put anyone in the local queer community in a situation where they could be at risk because they’re seen with this group of obvious homosexuals.”
Gurchaten Sandhu, ILGA World’s director of programs, warned of the dangers of “advocacy tourism,” where travelers get involved in activism at their destination, possibly jeopardizing not only themselves but also those they leave behind when their vacation is over.
Calling for travelers to boycott a country could also have unexpected adverse outcomes, Mr. Mendos of ILGA World and others cautioned.
While the impulse often stems a desire to help, Ms. Stern said, pushing for this kind of action without making sure L.G.B.T.Q. rights groups in the country stand behind it could lead to a backlash against local L.G.B.T.Q. people and “do more harm than good.”
Choosing to visit, on the other hand — even if you can’t be as out as you might want to be — may still have a positive impact on L.B.G.T.Q. people’s lives, at least indirectly.
“The travel industry in country after country is often one of the places where L.G.B.T.Q. people seek out jobs and find employment because there is heightened tolerance,” Ms. Stern said.
Quietly promoting change
There is no shortage of companies to pick from when planning a vacation to countries like Kenya, Egypt or the Maldives, but L.G.B.T.Q. travel providers say what sets them apart from mainstream options is not only that they make their clients feel welcome and safe, but also that they direct their resources to handpicked, queer-friendly businesses.
“We are putting money in the pockets of more progressive-thinking people and organizations that in the long run can contribute to progress by our definition,” said Mr. Sharp. Additionally, he said, Out Adventures has donated “quietly, behind the scenes” to local L.G.B.T.Q. organizations in countries where being gay is illegal, and is currently giving $50 per traveler to Rainbow Railroad, a nonprofit organization that helps L.G.B.T.Q. people escape state-sponsored violence. Out of Office has a similar program, Mr. Burn said, though he wouldn’t go into detail, citing concerns about the safety of those receiving the donations.
Ultimately, Mr. Driscoll of Venture Out said, the decision about whether to avoid travel to certain destinations based on principle was a deeply personal one that travelers had to make for themselves.
“It’s easy to feel outraged,” said Mr. Mendos of ILGA World. “I think that that’s a sound reaction. But people should be aware that change doesn’t happen overnight.”
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Ainara Tiefenthäler is a video journalist with the Visual Investigations team. She was among the recipients of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for The Times’s coverage of the vast civilian toll of U.S.-led airstrikes. @tiefenthaeler
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