BANGKOK – Amid an election campaign, a measure that would give gay and lesbian couples more rights — yet doesn’t legalize same-sex marriage — was approved by the Cabinet and was headed to Parliament.
Though the session ended before the bill became law, the tourism industry is using the occasion to actively promote Thailand as an LGBT-friendly destination.
“Thailand already has products and offerings catered to this market, and now our focus will be how we can better serve them,” Srisuda Wanapinyosak, a deputy governor for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said in an interview.
This year the Tourism Authority will host an LGBT travel symposium and plans more participation in pride parades in such cities as New York and Tel Aviv. Last month, it released a promotional video featuring LGBT travelers, including well-known lesbian bloggers Roxanne Weijer and Maartje Hensen. At a Madrid tourism event in January, the industry had a booth for the first time promoting Thailand specifically to gay and lesbian travelers.
The country’s tourism industry represents about one-fifth of the economy and is growing at a faster pace than other sectors. The LGBT market has become key to the industry’s fortunes. According to the investment firm LGBT Capital, tourism revenue from that community contributes 1.15 percent to Thailand’s economy, a greater share than any other destination.
Although Thailand is one of Asia’s most significant LGBT destinations, it’s still legally and in some respects culturally behind other countries like the U.S., Spain and the U.K., which received more revenue than Thailand from LGBT visitors.
The proposed civil union law stops short of allowing same-sex couples to marry: It would grant such partners legal rights to jointly manage assets and liabilities and to give or receive inheritances. Activists have criticized the measure for not giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples though proponents hail the bill as one of the first steps toward equality in Thailand.
Although the bill hasn’t become law, the government is expected to revisit the measure after the election. The future parliament may update it with more rights granted to address concerns raised earlier.
The measure would represent an advancement for LGBT rights in Asia. Vietnam and Taiwan have taken some steps toward recognizing same-sex unions in recent years, with the latter drafting a bill to legalize same-sex marriage that could go into effect this year.
In recent years Thailand has become known for its welcoming attitude toward LGBT visitors, although the local gay and lesbian community complains that they face some barriers in employment outside of entertainment and service industries. Bangkok was ranked Asia’s best city for LGBT visitors, ahead of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to apartment rental site Nestpick.
Foreign visitors generated about $63 billion to the Thai economy last year. According to LGBT Capital, the revenue from the LGBT inbound tourism market is estimated to be about $5.3 billion, which accounts for about 8.4 percent of the tourism industry. The country’s Tourism Ministry expects more than 41 million tourists this year, generating nearly $70 billion.
Thailand has long been a famous tourist destination. But the tourism industry barely existed before 1960.
Several studies have shown that people in the LGBT community have higher disposable income than the general population and tend to travel internationally. LGBT visitors could boost Thai tourism revenue at the time when tourism from some European and Middle Eastern countries has slowed down.
Robert Sharp, founder of Out Adventures, a Toronto-based travel company focusing on the gay community, has sent thousands of American and Canadian travelers to Thailand over the past decade. He said the majority of his clients take at least three international trips annually, and some only consider destinations that are welcoming to the LGBT community.
“I think Thailand sees this segment as an opportunity to promote the country, and this bill will only help that initiative,” Sharp said. “Thailand could really be an example that there’s a fiscal benefit to recognizing the community, and other countries could learn from it.”
By Randy Thanthong-Knight