Vanguards: Sanctuary Gateway Communities as Destinations for LGBT Travelers

By Elizabeth Moore

June 2017

Americans love to travel, whether it’s packing up the car for a classic road trip, boarding a cruise ship to tropical islands, or jetting off to exotic locales. We kick off our shoes, set aside (mostly) our electronics, and let down our hair. It’s a time to relax, to have fun, to be ourselves in a way that’s sometimes hard in our busy daily lives. But there’s been a segment of the American population that, until relatively recently and still not completely, hasn’t been able to comfortably share who they are and whom they love while traveling. Like other travelers, LGBT travelers seek a genuine welcome and an authentic experience—and many LGBT visitors find those things in our sanctuary gateway communities.

the golden gate bridge in fog
The gateway to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge stretches off into its equally-famed fog. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The Stonewall riots in New York in June 1969 (commemorated by Stonewall National Monument) were the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement, a watershed in our country’s continuing journey toward recognition and acceptance of all Americans. The riots had another, more subtle impact: the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) draws a direct line from the riots to tourism driven by gay pride events and the surging of LGBT tourism as a distinct and profitable segment of the traveling public (estimated conservatively in 2012 as a $65 billion impact).

In addition to pride festivals and other LGBT-themed events, today’s LGBT travelers have the same drivers as any other: leisure travel, destination weddings, and family vacations. Early LGBT travel guides, starting with 1964’s Damron Address Book, have matured and expanded. Today, LGBT tourists find multiple guides, travel agencies, destinations, and marketing campaigns competing for their attention and spending.

sunset in key west
A glorious sunset ends another day in Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S. and a gateway community for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Kate Thompson/NOAA

Some of our sanctuary gateway communities have historically been vanguards in tolerance and acceptance for sexual minorities. San Francisco held one of the country’s first pride marches in 1970. Key West was the location of the first gay hotel opened in 1976. In 1977, Provincetown and Key West formed the first gay-oriented chambers of commerce and conducted the first LGBT traveler-focused marketing campaigns. San Francisco hosted the first IGLTA convention in 1984 (and again in 1991 and 2000) and the first Gay Games in 1982. Honolulu, Key West, and Provincetown have taken their turns hosting the IGLTA annual convention as well.

These vibrant coastal communities and cities continue their traditions of openness and friendliness today. In a recent Travel and Leisure Magazine poll on the best cities in the U.S. for LGBT travelers, San Francisco, the gateway to Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries, took top honors. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s gateway city, Savannah, ranked #13, and Honolulu, the gateway to Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, took #20. Seattle, Miami, and Boston, big urban areas near sanctuaries, also took home the honors. Today, the Key West Business Guild helps draw a quarter million visitors to Key West, one of the gateway communities to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, sponsoring high-profile signature events like Key West Pride and operating the Gay Key West Visitor Center. San Francisco hosts one of the oldest and largest pride events every year. The San Francisco Travel Association bills itself as “the city that practically invented gay” and highlights tours and events in the city all year round.

boats in provincetown harbor
A view of Provincetown’s harbor shows best on a pretty summer day. Photo: California Cow via Flickr Creative Commons license

One of the gateway communities to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Provincetown, Massachusetts, is proud of the long history of acceptance rooted in its origins as one of America’s oldest arts communities. Year-round events help make the city one of the top LGBT destinations in the world. Savannah has long been considered a LGBT-friendly destination as has Honolulu, which is famed for the aloha spirit that welcomes travelers of all orientations.

waikiki beach
The beautiful stretch of Waikīkī Beach welcomes visitors to Honolulu and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Leisure travel has many documented benefits: stronger relationship and family bonds, increased satisfaction with quality of life, and a heightened sense of individual well-being, even personal growth and expanded knowledge. Travel is also seen as a way to learn about and share new cultures, to learn to not just tolerate but appreciate our differences. The U.N. World Tourism Organization’s Global Code of Ethics for Tourism includes this principle: “[W]hen practised with a sufficiently open mind, [tourism] is an irreplaceable factor of self-education, mutual tolerance and for learning about the legitimate differences between peoples and cultures and their diversity.”

This month, LGBT Pride Month, we recognize the right of all Americans to tolerance, acceptance, and acknowledgement. We are proud that so many of these vanguard communities are now also sanctuary gateway communities. Because this nation, and its ocean, are for everyone.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.