Faiths unite to fight gay invasion of Cape Town

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A campaign aimed at attracting homosexual tourists to Cape Town - billed as an international holiday destination for gays - has sparked a backlash among religious groups.

A campaign aimed at attracting homosexual tourists to Cape Town - billed as an international holiday destination for gays - has sparked a backlash among religious groups.

Thousands of Christians will gather at Newlands rugby ground in South Africa's gay capital on Wednesday, Human Rights Day, to pray for a sin-free city and an end to this official promotion of a town already ranked fifth in the world as a venue for gay travellers.

Cape Town is indeed gay-friendly. The publicly funded authority Cape Town Tourism backs the promotion of the Mother City (so-called because it was the first South African city created by settlers) as a pink city par excellence. There is a thriving 100,000-strong gay community here, not to mention the gay nudist beach, the Waterkant gay village, many gay bars, clubs, steam baths and guest houses, and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

"Cape Town is a queer city but it's straight-friendly," said Andre Vorster, director of the Mother City Queer Project, an annual costume extravaganza which last year attracted 8,000 people, many foreigners. "Certainly we don't mind straights visiting and spending money."

But the city's large Christian and Muslim communities are worried. "We absolutely respect people's right to be homosexual but object to Cape Town being sold on the basis of sexual preference, and to 'pink map' brochures with full-frontal nudity and bizarre sexual practices," said Errol Naidoo, spokesman for His People Christian Church, and for the Newlands gathering. "We'd prefer Cape Town to remain renowned for more traditional features, like Table Mountain, beaches, scenic beauty and the Winelands."

At a recent meeting to plan the Newlands event, many of 600 Christian leaders reported growing disquiet among congregations about the gay campaign. "Cape Town's Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities feel the same," said Mr Naidoo. "Gays are a minority, Christians are a more than 60 per cent majority. Rather than spend public money selling the city as gay friendly we want it promoted as family friendly."

The Muslim Judicial Council, representing many of the city's 600,000 Muslims, supports Mr Naidoo in what turned out to be a rather acrimonious war of words in the local papers over the gay tourism campaign.

But complaints are unlikely to force a backdown by Cape Town Tourism, which, for this cause, has invoked constitutional clauses outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.

"We understand why religious communities are objecting. We have no problem with the fact that religions outlaw homosexuality, and they have every right to see officials and write letters. But we will project our right to promote Cape Town as gay friendly," said Cape Town Tourism's manager, Sheryl Ozinsky. She said it would be stupid not to target the "pink pound" - a potential contributor to the economy.

It has been estimated that 24,000 gays visited the city in 1999. And, in 2010, Cape Town is hoping to host the gay Olympic games. Recently, too, the city hosted a conference of the International Gay and Lesbian Travellers' Association, whose work is likely to generate a new wave of gay tourism. There is no doubt the gay tourism market is lucrative; in the US it is worth R331bn (£30bn) a year. "Gay tourists spend more than straights, they travel more and stay longer, the main reason being that they don't have children," Mr Vorster pointed out.

He added that the Queer Project generated R50m (£4.4 m) in the local economy, and, with Cape Town Tourism, was working to build the parade into something like Sydney's huge Mardi Gras gay festival.

Business has come out on Cape Town Tourism's side. Mike Thomson, president of the Cape Town chamber of business, says he believes gay tourism is big business, vital to the city's future, and that the debate about it is "ridiculous".