Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Gay Tourism Boom in Buenos Aires

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 25 2005 (IPS) - The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Buenos Aires has helped make the Argentine capital the leading Latin American destination for gay and lesbian tourists, outstripping even Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, the former favourites.

"In the past, gay and lesbian tourists would choose Brazil as their main destination, and come to Buenos Aires for a weekend excursion. Now the trend is the exact opposite," said Carlos Meliá, owner and manager of Pride Travel, the only Argentine travel agency fully run by gays and geared almost exclusively to the homosexual community.

The reasons for this shift are numerous. According to some tourism industry specialists, many travellers simply "got tired" of always going to Brazil, and in Buenos Aires they found a friendly city with a wide range of cultural and entertainment options, as well as extremely competitive prices, following the devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002.

"It&#39s like a European city with a Latin flavour," Meliá summarised.

Gay and lesbian travellers have become a highly attractive market for the tourism industry worldwide, since they tend to fall in the category of "DINKs" – short for "double income, no kids" – which usually translates into greater spending power. They come mainly from the United States, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Australia.

"These are couples in which both partners are professionals, with no children, who devote a large part of their income to leisure and personal care. They travel more than once a year, and not necessarily during high season, since they aren&#39t restricted by school holidays, like parents with children are," explained Meliá.

While there are no official statistics, the legalisation of civil unions between same-sex couples in Buenos Aires in July 2003 unleashed a veritable boom in gay tourism.

Since then, this sector has experienced "exponential growth", according to the manager of Pride Travel. "Business in our offices has increased by 50 percent a month," he added.

Buenos Aires-based tango instructor Augusto Balizano has also been overwhelmed by the upsurge in gay tourism since city authorities authorised same-sex marriage.

"I&#39ve been giving tango lessons to Argentine gays for six years, but in 2003 we started up a &#39milonga&#39 (tango dancing venue) and it immediately started filling up with foreigners," he told IPS.

Balizano said that every Wednesday, between 100 and 120 people flock to The Marshall, the dance hall that he and his partners rent out for their weekly &#39gay milonga&#39.

"Some prefer to just watch, others have some experience and get up and dance," he said, adding that the tango was originally danced only by men.

The Marshall is not a specifically gay venue, and neither are the salsa clubs, discotheques, cafés and restaurants frequented by gays and lesbians in Buenos Aires, which also attract heterosexual patrons.

These venues are classified as "gay friendly", as opposed to exclusively gay, which Meliá believes is a distinctive trait in Buenos Aires. "There is no such thing as a gay ghetto here, like you see in other cities," he noted.

In Buenos Aires, business owners in the San Telmo neighbourhood, known for its antique shops and open-air markets, proposed the creation of a tour circuit for gay and lesbian visitors, but not a special district. "The tendency is to promote a mixture, and there are many places where it&#39s considered fashionable to have gay clients," said Meliá.

This same tendency is seen in other major Argentine tourism destinations, like Córdoba, the capital of the province of the same name, Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe, and Mar del Plata, a beach resort located 400 kilometres south of the Argentine capital, in the province of Buenos Aires.

In terms of accommodation, a number of self-described "gay friendly" hotels have sprouted up in recent years, along with others exclusively for gay and lesbian tourists, particularly bed and breakfast establishments.

Gay and lesbian tour packages to Buenos Aires often include day trips to the cities of Colonia or Montevideo in neighbouring Uruguay.

Unlike countries where the government tourism authorities have special departments to attend to this growing market sector, there is "little support" provided by the Argentine National Tourism Secretariat, noted Meliá.

"The whole world is trying to attract &#39pink money&#39, but the government here hasn&#39t realised that yet," he commented.

On the other hand, the sector enjoys close cooperation with the under-secretariat of tourism run by the government of the city of Buenos Aires.

With the sponsorship of this local government office, Pride Travel publishes a pocket guide called La Ronda, with maps, tour routes and coupons for restaurants, nightclubs, &#39milongas&#39, shops, concerts and other services, like massages and hair salons.

April will see the launching of a monthly publication, Pride Travel Mag, announced as "the first South American gay tourism magazine".

In response to this growing phenomenon, Buenos Aires has been chosen for the first time ever as the host city for a symposium organised by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), to be held Feb. 24-27.

Every year, the IGLTA holds an annual convention and four symposia in different tourism destinations around the world. Each symposium attracts over 100 representatives of tour agencies and travel publications that specialise in the gay and lesbian market.

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