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Accidental Tourists 

Can travel trump politics when it comes to attracting LGBT money?

Step into the Royal Elizabeth, and you're entering a Victorian vortex of lush woodwork and ornate details. But that's about the only parallel this lovely B&B shares with its infamously uptight, namesake era.

Instead, the downtown inn is on the vanguard of a booming gay and lesbian tourist trade. So booming, in fact, that it's placing Arizona conservatives on the hot seat in ways that rallies, marches and voter drives could never do. Put another way, this lucrative travel market isn't exactly charmed by right-wing histrionics such as high-profile campaigns to ban gay marriage and domestic partnerships. And when that displeasure hits the pocketbook, lawmakers and their business backers take notice.

"This state can't have it both ways," says Jeff DiGregorio, a former transportation planner who bought the Royal Elizabeth with his partner, Chuck Bressi, in 2004. "You can't tell a certain group of people in your state that they don't have the same rights as other people, and expect it to be a mecca for tourism. You can't be a discriminatory state and expect tourists to flock here."

And Arizona desperately wants that flock. The gay and lesbian travel market "is very hot, and everyone is going after it," says David Paisley of the San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. The reason is simple: "Dual income, no kids," he says. "That's gold."

According to Paisley, gays and lesbians are much more likely to spend disposable income on travel, amounting to about $62 billion annually across the nation. To tap that market, many communities are feverishly fine-tuning their pitches. For example, Tempe is aggressively going after gay and lesbian tourists with a special Web site portal, and wining and dining writers for gay publications. City officials in Phoenix have similar plans, and the Phoenix Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce has published a wildly popular travel brochure. They are joined by officials in Sedona, Jerome and Bisbee.

Think this is overblown? Think again: In January, some 5,000 people attended Rawhide's annual Arizona Gay Rodeo Association competition--along with broadcasts by everyone from the BBC to The Daily Show.

Compared to these other cities, however, Tucson seemingly relies more on its open-minded reputation than any actual efforts to attract gay and lesbian tourism. The city itself doesn't have a coordinated marketing campaign directed towards gay tourists, says spokesman Michael Carson.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau apparently hopes to duck the issue altogether. Spokeswoman Kimberly Schmitz didn't return several phone calls, and when the Tucson Weekly did finally track her down, she was rather less than enthused. "We don't segment our approach," she snipped. "We market to all groups."

On the other hand, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce--hardly known for its footloose liberalism--takes a refreshingly fiscal approach to this touchy topic. "The business community doesn't care if it's gay tourism or straight tourism," says President Jack Camper. "The fact of the matter is, it's all tourist dollars, and they're high dollar at that."

Still, don't rush to surmise that Camper's old-fashioned, pragmatic conservatism--the kind arguing to keep government out of Americans' wallets and their hotel rooms--is any kind of trend. So far, even gay tourist revenue hasn't dampened the zeal of "family values" crusaders such as the Center for Arizona Policy. A former stomping ground of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Len Munsil, the Scottsdale-based group is still cobbling together petition signatures for a constitutional amendment banning domestic partnerships--for both heterosexuals and homosexuals--and gay marriage, which is already illegal.

But Peter Gentala, the center's attorney, says gay tourists are going to be hard-pressed to find states without a movement such as his. "It sounds like there's only one place they can vacation in good conscience, and that's Massachusetts. And people have a movement to amend the Constitution there as well."

Arizona's conservative lawmakers, long champions of the marriage ban, are watching--and presumably waiting for any fallout. "Yes, there probably are folks knowledgeable about (the proposed ban), and will choose their vacation destination based on whether or not a particular state has such a constitutional provision," says Rob Dalager, operations and legal advisor for the Senate's GOP Majority Caucus. "How significant that is for the tourist community, I don't know."

Meanwhile, at this uneasy confluence of policy, politics and travel sits Margie Emmerman, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. "Up to now, budgets have dictated what we've done," says the understandably circumspect director. "But we are a government agency, and I'm not going to tell you that politics have not played a role in this. There are ... some things that are less politically desirable than other things."

Even if the worst of those desires comes to pass, however, David Paisley says Arizona cities still hold an ace. "Anti-gay politics can affect tourism. But individual communities within the state can change that. I think Fort Lauderdale is a great example. While it's one of the most booming gay tourism communities that there is, Florida as a whole is not very gay-friendly. So it's possible that Tucson, which is more liberal than Phoenix, could develop that kind of relationship with the gay and lesbian community."

There are limits even to Tucson's draw, however. That was a hard lesson learned by Keith Bradkowski, owner of the now-defunct Coyote Moon, which was marketed as the nation's first health-oriented gay resort. Bradkowski helped bankroll the enclave in a former northwest Tucson dude ranch--and had parted with $200,000 by its December closing.

Bradkowski blames early money shortages and bad decisions before his arrival. But he also points to overly narrow marketing. "It could have been gay- or lesbian-friendly," he says. "But targeting it exclusively to the gay and lesbian community was a mistake."

According to David Paisley, Coyote Moon was also ahead of its time--at least for Arizona, which is still climbing the destination list for gay and lesbian tourists. "It's starting to happen there," he says, "but you're so far behind places like Fort Lauderdale or Palm Springs."

Then again, one could simply ignore the impulse to target marketing to one niche or another, says B&B owner Chuck Bressi. "Tucson is an open and accepting place. But not everybody wants (to visit) specifically gay and lesbian places. Many people just want to visit integrated places where they'll find open-minded, like-minded people."

That is one enduring tradition at the Royal Elizabeth, he says. "There are things on our Web site that allow the gay traveler to find our place and realize we are a gay couple. But we are open and accepting. Anybody is welcome here."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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