Last edited: February 14, 2005

Controversy in the Caymans

Island's Ban of Gay Cruise Sparks Boycott

Conde Nast Traveler - April, 1998
360 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Fax: (212) 880-2190

by Jeffrey L. Newman

The refusal of the Cayman Islands to grand landing rights to a cruise ship chartered by a gay group last winter has shed light on the often contentious relationship between the Caribbean islands and gay visitors.

While the Caymans now face the threat of a boycott, other destinations in the region say they welcome gays with open arms.

In early December 1997, Thomas Jefferson, the minister of tourism for the Cayman Islands, sent a letter to Norwegian Cruise Lines denying landing rights for its M.S. Leeward, which Atlantis Events, a Los Angeles-based gay-tour operator, had chartered for a two-week Caribbean cruise. The ship, carrying 900 passengers, was scheduled to arrive in Grand Cayman on February 1. The letter read, in part: "Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behavior expected from visitors to the Cayman Islands."

The letter did not elaborate, but Jefferson later told Conde Nast Traveler that the "research" he referred to was his own survey of Cayman ministers, members of paliament, and residents. He also cited a 1987 incident in which gay passengers from another cruise ship, chartered by RSVP Vacations, came to the islands and walked around holding hands, which disturbed residents. "I don't believe any homophobia prompted this decision," he said, but he added that, "the Cayman people are very conservative, and their beliefs are deeply embedded in religious and traditional family values."

While Jefferson may deny that his country is homophobic, many other islands are clearly uncomfortable with gay visitors. "One of the reasons we get so many requests for information on the Caribbean is that the attitudes and options for gay people are so different from place to place," says Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of "Out & About," a gay travel newsletter that is spearheading a boycott of the Caymans.

Gay and lesbian travel accounts for more than ten percent of the $170 billion U.S. tourism industry, according to Tom Roth, president of Community Marketing, a San Francisco-based gay-travel marketing firm. Roth says that in the United States, 48 percent of gay travelers - four times the national average - took an international trip last year.

Kolber-Stuart and others in the gay travel industry say the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and the French-governed islands - notably St. Barts, Guadaloupe, and Martinique - have excellent reputations among gay travelers, as does Belize, which replaced the Cayman Islands on the Atlantic Events itinerary.

But less welcoming attitudes on other islands - the Caymans, Jamaica, and the Bahamas are often invoked as examples - leave many travel agents uneasy about recommending the Caribbean to gay clients. Tom Rosenblatt, a Fort Lauderdale agent with Carlson-Wagonlit, who has been selling packages to gay travelers for the past ten years, says most of the islands are tenuous in their reception of gay travelers. "It's hard to judge whether their safety is going to be ensured," he says. "I feel much more comfortable sending them somewhere I know they won't get called names or be in harm's way."

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