Gay Ski Weeks: A ski sector that is in the pink

Anna Lawlor reports on how resorts are reaching out to a booming market

Gripping the corner of a 40ft rainbow Pride flag, my gold-sequined tie and pink feather boa flapping in the alpine breeze, we are on the final descent into Whistler village. This isn't a typical ski holiday.

For many, skiing and snowboarding epitomises self-expression and feelings of freedom. For the gay community, where such liberties are not guaranteed during their international holidays, this is especially important. Over the past four decades, a quiet revolution has begun, inspired by Aspen's Gay Ski Week in 1977, and big-name mountain resorts around the world now compete to host gay ski weeks, from Whistler to Utah, Austria to France and Switzerland to New Zealand.

Whistler's WinterPRIDE is the longest-running event in the resort's calendar, attracting 3,000 gay and lesbian winter holidaymakers and generating C$9m (£5m) for the British Columbia economy. European Gay Ski Week reports that its 1,000 attendees spend 30 per cent more per head than average holidaymakers to Alpe d'Huez, while Sölden's Gay Snow Happening is smaller, attracting around 600 gay holidaymakers, but still draws €1m to the resort.

However, economic benefits aren't the whole story. Jim Guttau, spokesperson for Aspen Gay Ski Week (gayskiweek.com), a not-for-profit event that attracts five thousand people each year, says: "The mountain residents see the benefits, from promoting tolerance to the economic impact. Youth in the valley have thanked our foundation for hosting the event – it gave them a sense of belonging. Aspen, its residents and holidaymakers are extremely supportive of the event, as evidenced by the rainbow flags hanging from every lamp-post and the spectators – heterosexual and homosexual – that attend events like our Downhill Costume Contest."

Aspen's event – along with that in Arosa, Switzerland (arosa-gayskiweek.com) – draws to a close this weekend. As greater acceptance of gay people around the world continues, why are gay-specific holidays important? Kevin Millins, head of Pure Organisation which operates European Gay Ski Week in Alpe d'Huez, explains: "While it's great that the world is far more accepting of the LGBT community, not everywhere you go to is guaranteed to be like this. It's simple: I want to be sure I'll enjoy my holidays, which in my opinion are about relaxing and socialising. It's about being able to go to a destination and participate in an activity you love, at an event where you can be yourself and have no concerns whatsoever."

For participants such as Skip Evans, a 44-year-old civil servant from Australia who has attended Whistler WinterPRIDE three years running, it's about community. He said: "Gay ski weeks provide an opportunity for like-minded people with similar interests, but who are often from often far-flung places, to get together and enjoy their sport, meet new friends and have some fun."

Contrary to some perceptions of gay ski weeks as mountain "gay ghettos", Evans says it's the inclusive LGBT-friendly but not exclusive nature of the events that are so attractive. Most gay ski weeks are delighted to welcome straight allies, who sometimes accompany LGBT attendees, especially during the free on-mountain guiding programmes that many gay ski weeks provide.

The guides are usually volunteers, such as Canadian airline employee Michael Muller. For him, the priorities are simple: "Ski terrain is number one; the parties are number two. The country and culture also factor, but it's fun to have different experiences and do this with ski buddies I've made at other gay ski weeks."

Aside from the outlandish, dazzling on-mountain costumes, one thing is a given: gay ski weeks sure know how to party, on-mountain and off: there are pool parties, comedy and burlesque shows, wine tastings and top club brands and DJ talent. This year London cabaret club Madame JoJo's will feature. "There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the Alps," says Millins.

Despite my two decades of snowboarding experience, taking part in WinterPRIDE's "SkiOUT" (named after the local gay ski club) is one of my most memorable descents. Surrounded by cheers, whooping and carnival whistles, bystander skiers stopped to serenade the mountain parade with an impromptu "ski-pole applause", the tap-tap-tap echoing around us. This is a world away from the homophobic "gays on trays" slur of the 1990s – and the mountains are all the better for it.

The alternatives

Winter Rendezvous, Stowe (Vermont, US): 22-26 January (mjwadventures.com/winterrendezvous_ index.php)

Whistler WinterPRIDE (Canada): 26 Jan-2 Feb (gaywhistler.com)

Elevation Utah: Gay Ski Week: 20-23 Feb (utahgayski.com)

Telluride Gay Ski Week (Colorado, US): 21 Feb-2 Mar (telluridegayskiweek.com)

European Gay Ski Week (Alpe d'Huez, France): 22-29 Mar (europeangayskiweek.com)

Gay Snow Happening, Solden (Austria): 22-29 Mar (gaysnowhappening.com)

European Snow Pride (Tignes, France): 22-29 Mar (europeansnowpride.com)

Gay Ski Week Queenstown (New Zealand): TBC (gayskiweekqt.com)

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