Sue Marling's Traveller's Checks
Cashing in on the pink pound; How to sell the new British Museum
Monday 09 April 2001
What do Sydney, South Beach Miami, Provincetown (Cape Cod), San Francisco, Barcelona, Mykonos and Ibiza have in common? Apart, that is, from a reputation for brilliant sunshine, attractive architecture, outstanding restaurants and a splash of glamour? That's right boys (and girls sometimes). These destinations are marked with luminous pink flags on the world map as favourite gay holiday venues. Which is fine, except that it would be better all round if there didn't have to be gorgeous ghettos of homosexual holidaymaking. Why? Firstly because the mainstream holiday business needs all the gay influence it can muster, as anyone concerned about standards in food, hotel-keeping, design and entertainment will testify.
We really can't afford to lose all the gay businesses and their gay customers to a sequence of small, exclusive holiday zones. Secondly, because "gay holidays" tend to be presented as the queer equivalent of Club 18-30, a kind of Canal Street meets Carmen Miranda on the seashore. This is the Channel 4 late-night version of gay hols all cruising and bonking and rubbing on Hawaiian tanning butter and being Outraaageous that surely reinforces stereotypes. It also means that when a holiday region or city announces that it wishes to welcome gay clients there are howls of protest. This year a "broader" tourism policy announced in Cape Town and then in the Highlands of Scotland opened the sluice on a flood of sputtering churchmen preaching the usual medieval bigotry about Sodom and Gomorrah. Thirdly, the ghetto leaves my gay friends rather out in the cold they say the last thing they want is a gay holiday where they find themselves "mixed up with squawking shop-boys or muscle men in satin boxer shorts". On the other hand they want to be able to check into an hotel without embarrassment. Metropolitan readers may find it difficult to believe, but gay couples cannot always assume that they will be welcome. Indeed, according to Ian Kirk who runs the Auchendean Lodge hotel in Inverness-shire, the only hotel in the Highlands which professes to be "gay friendly", their reception is often hostile. "Couples arrive at hotels and are told there's been a mistake no room is available or there is only a twin room," he explains. "In one case two men checked into a hotel in Scotland, went out for a walk and returned to find their clothes and luggage had been taken out of a double room and installed in a twin." (Anyway, why should hotel receptionists be the arbiters of taste and sexual behaviour? It wasn't so long ago that people who were not married felt they had to sign into a hotel as "Mr and Mrs Smith". British films are full of embarrassed couples blurting out different names and turning pink as an ostentatiously sceptical desk-dragon peered over the top of his/her specs to size up their respectability. For marital status now read sexual tendency.)
Which is why we should be pleased not only at the news that the Thomas Cook holiday company wants to woo gay holiday-makers but also that it wants to integrate them into the mainstream. Mike Beaumont, its commercial director, says that while the traditional hotspots such as Mykonos will be on offer to the new gay target market, "we're also aware that a large part of the market is also looking for holiday destinations common to everyone else ... they don't want to go to a gay venue any more". Of course, its enlightened self-interest has led the company that launched British group tourism more than a century ago to wake up to the potential provided by the UK's two million gay consumers who have a taste for travel and more than usually large amounts of money to spend.
A survey last year showed that, on average, gay couples take two foreign and one domestic holidays a year plus several weekend breaks. They spend more on those holidays than the average punter and travel all year round, not just in school holidays. So, courting the pink pound makes sense and the company is negotiating with hoteliers, cruise ship companies and villa and chalet owners to find those best placed to welcome gay holiday-makers. I hope the rest of the industry, which is notoriously slow to pick up on social and demographic trends, follows suit. Oh, and I hope Sandals resorts who run "couples only" holidays will change their noxious policy of accepting bookings only from him 'n' her types.
The Great Court of the British Museum, which has proved so disappointingly poor at attracting crowds of Londoners and tourists, is now apparently having trouble with beggars (who obviously weigh the low possibility of hand-outs from so few visitors against the high probability of staying dry). I am also told that the absurd opening and booking procedures of the Great Court restaurant are worse than I reported here because it seems only Friends of the Museum are allowed to book a table. But the BM is only one of several august national treasure houses struggling to find that important balance between maintaining the dignity of an institution and its collection and earning some much needed cash. The current drama is being played out in Oxford where the Bodleian Library, above, has plans to turn itself into a pay-as-you-enter visitor centre. I'd be interested to hear if any of the town's many thinkers and shakers can come up with a plan for the library which would make money without resorting to what some critics and senior academics are calling "this commercial vandalism".
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