Gay people travel. A lot. In a survey conducted at the 2000 London Mardi Gras, 46 per cent of respondents stated that they took two or more holidays a year compared with the national average of 30 per cent. With fewer family ties, big disposable income and a higher than average education, gays and lesbians make ideal holiday consumers. And package holiday companies are welcoming the pink pound into their coffers.
Last year, Thomas Cook entered the fray by stocking brochures by Respect Holidays, one of Britain's largest gay-specific package holiday operators. A series of gay guidebooks printed by the publishing arm of the company was quickly added to Thomas Cook Publishing's list - and an attack on the gay travel market was launched. But it takes more than a rainbow flag and a Kylie Minogue soundtrack to make a location and a tour operator gay-friendly.
When South Africa decided to market itself as a gay-friendly paradise, it was not without a lot of soul-searching. South Africa may have one of the world's most inclusive constitutions, but it is still a country of strong religious beliefs fighting decades of institutionalised prejudice. Man Around, a London-based gay-specific tour operator, began offering trips there approximately five years ago. Cape Town's relaxed lifestyle and low prices appeal to gay travellers looking for an exotic destination. While the gay scene is small compared with London or even Manchester, it is still Africa's most diverse. The city offers a wide range of dining, drinking and hotel options that are both gay-specific and of a high calibre.
The Glen Boutique Hotel, featured in Man Around's brochure, is owned by the publisher of London scene guide QX magazine. An intimate hotel of 10 en-suite rooms, it is in the heart of Sea Point, a five-minute drive from the gay area. The Glen is a favourite among visiting Brits, including Graham Norton, attracted no doubt by its canopied beds, wood-burning fireplace, incredible breakfasts and discreet management. The needs of the gay traveller are fully catered for because the management and the staff are members of the "family". Maps of the gay scene are freely available and listings of Aids organisations and gay-friendly doctors and pharmacists are in the hotel's guide to local services.
But gay-specific holidays are not for everyone. Mainstream travel operators have opened up their packages to same-sex couples. With some few exceptions such as the Caribbean resort chain Sandals, high-street companies are more than willing to accept bookings from anyone able to fork out the cash.
Bespoke packages catering to the highest end of the travel market are a particular favourite with gay holiday-makers. One company gays and lesbians are beginning to discover is Journeys by Design, a Brighton-based luxury safari packager with properties scattered throughout South and East Africa.
While Journeys by Design isn't gay-specific, its list of hotel and safari camp options suitable for the gay holiday-maker is extensive. One highly recommended South African property is Etali Game Lodge in the Madikwe Reserve near the Botswana border. A new safari camp on the luxury scene, Etali accommodates up to 16 guests in its network of five-star cabins complete with private whirlpools. It is in a malaria-free area so gays and lesbians who decide to stay here need not worry about having to take medication that might interfere with existing drug treatments. And with a private chef on staff, dietary concerns can be catered for.
You will not find the knowledge about gay lifestyles that you would find in a gay-specific property, but you will find the same level of concern about the quality of your holiday experience. South Africa's constitution ensures that all properties in the country accept bookings from same-sex couples. Any problems that arise are usually caused not by hotel staff and management, but other guests who are not legally bound to be as accepting.
A bespoke packager such as Journeys by Design is easy to work with if you are looking for a property where such a scenario is unlikely. In the case of Etali, its modern architecture, high prices and remote location translate into a clientele that is generally younger than the average safari-goer and thus more familiar with gay lifestyles. Other larger package holiday firms may not be as suitable if you want to avoid the stares and insults of the easily offended.
Destinations such as Gran Canaria, Sitges, Mykonos and Lesbos will always dominate the market, but as bookers become more selective and demanding, new destinations - including long-haul, gay-positive possibilities such as South Africa - are bound to open up to the gay community.
The only question that remains is how long it will take for the British gay and lesbian population to realise that their wallets are the most powerful tool that they have in changing the attitudes of holiday destinations, hotel chains and other travel-related companies. Gay or straight, the choice is (finally) yours.
Give me the facts
Ryan Levitt travelled to South Africa courtesy of South Africa Tourism, South African Airways, Man Around and Journeys by Design.
In February, South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) offers return fares to Cape Town from £733.
Seven nights at the Glen Boutique Hotel through Man Around (020-8902 7177; www.manaround.com) costs £1,075, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, b&b accommodation and a trip up Table Mountain.
Journeys by Design (01273 623790; www.journeysbydesign.co.uk) can arrange a two-week holiday, including three nights at Etali in the Madikwe Game Reserve, from £2,950 per person until April, excluding flights. It is offering Independent on Sunday readers a 10 per cent Valentine's discount on Etali bookings made before 29 February for travel until 20 December.
Where can I find out more?
South Africa Tourism (0870-155 0044; www.southafrica.net).
Somewhere over the rainbow
South Africa is not the only pink-positive destination worth checking out. There are plenty of other deals available for everyone from the budget traveller to the big-spending lover of luxury. The following is a list of five options suitable for gay and lesbian holiday-makers looking to get away from Britain.
Europe's most popular gay resort is widely covered by a number of gay-friendly package holiday companies. The near-permanent sun, giant Yumbo shopping centre and plethora of imported British and German drag acts make this much-loved island a paradise of sand dunes and decadence. Respect Holidays (0870-770 0169; www.respect-holidays.co.uk), offers seven-night packages to Gran Canaria (ideal for summer or winter) staying at Respect Los Almendros, Europe's largest exclusively gay holiday complex, for approximately £329 per person, based on two people sharing a room.
There's still time to book your holiday to the world's biggest party celebrating the gay and lesbian community - Sydney Mardi Gras. Man Around (020-8902 7177; www.manaround.com) still has good availability for late February departures, complete with return air fare on Qantas, 10 nights' accommodation at the Southern Cross Towers on a room-only basis (based on twin occupancy), a Mardi Gras party pack, ball tickets, grandstand parade viewing seats and an exclusively gay harbour cruise for £1,475.
Amro Holidays (0870-990 7404; www.amroholidays.com), a leading specialist in worldwide
holidays for the gay and lesbian community, offers a 14-night holiday with five nights in the capital, San Jose, three nights in Corcovado National Park and six nights in La Plantation gay guesthouse, including flights and transfers from £1,499 for November departures. A day excursion to the Irazu Volcano costs £45, the waterfalls jungle canopy tour costs £60 and a half-day white-water rafting excursion is £45.
Gay ski weeks are incredibly well-attended, with resorts as diverse as Aspen, Whistler, Les Alpes d'Huez and Garmisch dedicating specific weeks to fanciers of same-sex snow-bound frolicking. One of the newer events is the gay ski week in Soelden, Austria, located in the heart of the Tyrol.
With prices starting at €35 (£24) a night for bed and breakfast accommodation and a Gay Ski Week pack including a six-day ski pass, nightlife programme, daily ski-guiding, welcome packages and party tickets for only €205 (£140), it's definitely one of the more affordable options. Tourismusverband Ötztal Arena (00 43 5254 5102 39; firstname.lastname@example.org) are happy to supply further booking information.
Palm Springs, California
If you like the idea of a gay holiday but want the flexibility of putting together your own package, check out the various gay hotspots of the United States. Key West, Provincetown, West Hollywood, Russian River and (of course) San Francisco offer tons of gay-and-lesbian-specific accommodation. For my money, the guaranteed sun of Palm Springs, California, is one of the better bets. INNdulge (00 1 760 327 1408; www.inndulge.com), starting at $109 (£60) per night, is a favourite with gay men, while Casitas Laquita (00 1 760 416 9999; www.casitaslaquita.com) has rooms for the ladies beginning at $120 (£65) per night. United Airlines offers flights to this desert retreat (connecting through Los Angeles) for £360 return throughout March.