/ 21 December 2006

Honeymoons after the pink promise

When rings have been exchanged, tearful ‘I dos” have been uttered and empty champagne bottles are all that remain after a wedding reception, newly-weds embark on their honeymoon.

And now, it seems, hotels around South Africa are opening their doors to newly-weds both wearing tuxedos or white dresses — gay honeymooners.

On December 1 South Africa became one of only five countries in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.

Considering that South Africa may become a popular destination for same-sex couples to visit and get married, hotels are looking to tap into pink money — the gay currency referring to an income without dependants.

Although the international gay travel market accounts for more than 70-million arrivals worldwide, South Africa receives only 1% of international gay travellers, according to the South African Gay and Lesbian Travel Alliance (Saglta).

However, the country is growing in popularity as a holiday destination. About 7,4-million people — most of them from other African countries — visited last year, up on the previous year’s figure of 6,7-million, says Statistics South Africa.

But are South African hotels ready to deal with Mr and Mr, or Mrs and Mrs, after the rice has been thrown?

Some local hotels are getting their staff trained by gay marketing strategists bent on teaching concierges and receptionists to fight the urge to ask, ‘Will your husband or wife be joining you?” and instead using the more general ‘spouse” or ‘partner”.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which manages 68 lodges catering for eco-tourists heading to KwaZulu-Natal, hired Vivienne Quann of Hot Salsa Media, a marketing company that specialises in the gay market, to transform its hotels internally and teach staff how to deal with gay customers.

Quann, who trained Ezemvelo’s more than 60 staff members using role play, says: ‘It is important to acknowledge that as gay people we do not want to be treated any differently than anyone else. In the hospitality sector this means [as a starting point] all assumptions must be removed.”

Other hotels are already searching for non-denominational ministers to perform marriage ceremonies and plan to offer marriage packages for same-sex couples. One of these is Umbhaba Lodge in Hazyview, Mpumalanga.

Dave Foxon, CEO of the lodge, says Umbhaba has already received bookings from same-sex couples 10 months in advance for weddings in the lodge’s chapel and garden. ‘People who don’t look at [the gay market] have blinkers on; some people are worried about their patrons but I definitely think it’s the way forward,” he says.

And if same-sex couples are still not satisfied, they can always go to gay-only, gay-owned hotels.

Amsterdam — a guest lodge in Oranjezicht, Cape Town, for gay men only — offers honeymoon champagne and cheese platters in its suites.

Dutch owner Michiel Spaapen says the lodge will do anything a guest requests. ‘We have a big dining area, which could be used for weddings, and a large outside area for parties or ceremonies. There’s lots we can do here. Nothing is too big,” he says.

French tourist Christophe Lemarchand (29), a guest at Amsterdam, says when the time comes he will get married in Paris but definitely honeymoon in Cape Town. Staying at a gay lodge like Amsterdam, which allows men to sunbathe and walk around in the nude, makes him feel free. ‘I can be naked. I can be with my boyfriend and do whatever I want.”

According to a research report titled The Gay and Lesbian Tourism Profile 2006, compiled by San Francisco-based market researchers Community Marketing, most gay travellers use the internet when researching and booking accommodation. It also found that about three-quarters of the gay population are more likely to choose a travel destination that is known to be gay-friendly.

But whether a wedding venue is gay-friendly or not, some same-sex couples simply want a romantic atmosphere for their ceremony.

Johannesburg-based designer Isaac Kosmides (25) plans to marry his partner in a restaurant on the beach in Paternoster, a small coastal town in the Western Cape. Although not a particularly gay-oriented town, Kosmides says ‘it’s quiet and sleepy and one of the most beautiful places in the world”.

When travelling with his partner, Kosmides says staying at gay resorts and hotels is important. ‘We just want to be ourselves and to be together. We work our arses off during the year and at the end of the year, it’s us time. It’s also nice to meet people who are like-minded in a certain capacity. You can tell each other where to eat, where to go out. There is a certain camaraderie in that.”

But what exactly does gay-friendly mean?

‘You arrive at the hotel and they see two men or two women at reception. More often than not, it is automatically assumed you require a twin room or two single rooms. So now you are left feeling uncomfortable when requesting a double room, at which point you are given double takes or, as I have had more times than not, the ‘Oh um, oh um, let us see what we can do’ scenario,” says Quann.

‘We don’t want the looks and sniggers and bad service because of who we are. If we hold hands and someone complains — what we don’t want is that the gay couple are asked to leave, which happens more often than not.”