Staff writer During his trip to the west coast of Australia in January, Shigenobu Umeki, a 40-year-old magazine editor, stayed at so-called gay accommodations, run by gay owners and staffed by gay workers. “I am always conscious of my sexual orientation when talking to people out of fear that they are prejudiced,” he said. “I preferred hotels with only gay staff and guests because I wanted to be free from such consciousness, at least during vacation.” Although homosexuals may have distinctive tastes and wants in planning their travels, there was not a single travel agency in Japan that could cater to their needs until September. True Travel was established in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Sept. 8 to offer comprehensive tours and distinctive travel services geared toward gay people. “I started this business, believing that there was a need for a travel agency to provide package tours that meet the demands of gay people, or introduce them to overseas travel facilities designed for them,” said Yoichi Hayase, president of the agency, who is also gay. He claimed there is demand for gay travel agencies, largely because ordinary travel firms do not provide tours that meet the needs of gay travelers. Hayase also said gay people may be too embarrassed to arrange travel plans through nongay staffers at ordinary travel agencies, such as requesting a double room for a male couple. The package tours offered by True Travel include trips to such events as the Mardi Gras in Sydney or Gay Day at Florida’s Disney World, for which no agencies have arranged packages before. Umeki said he is grateful that the agency also offers overseas wedding packages for gay couples to celebrate their union. As the only Japanese member of the 1,500 corporate members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, the firm boasts a stock of information on gay travel. “All three staffers at my firm are gay, making it easier for our clients to convey their specific needs in arranging plans. I decided to name my firm True Travel in the hope that we can provide our clients with tours that let them be true to themselves,” Hayase added. Hayase has loftier goals than just providing satisfying trips to his clients. At present, while heterosexuals have access to a wide variety of services taken for granted in daily life, for gays such services are limited, he said. Although bars, pubs and organized parties for gay people abound in Japan, many basic daily services — such as family life insurance for a male-couple household or a gay-staffed hospital — are unavailable, he said. Also, prejudice is often an obstacle gays face living as ordinary citizens, despite differing from the majority of the public only in their sexual orientation, he said. “By making my business successful, I want to let ordinary businesses know that the gay market is a promising one, so that they actively tap this market and provide various services for gays.” Hayase added that such moves could in turn increase working opportunities for gay people, simply because gays know best about their needs. Indeed, the gay market is potentially lucrative. According to an IGLTA report, the disposable income of gay couples in any age bracket is larger on average than their nongay counterparts, because they are virtually all double-income households with no children. They also tend to have more free time, because most of them do not have as many family obligations, the report says. Hayase said these characteristics of the gay population make the prospect of the gay travel industry especially promising, noting that in the United States, the market — including agencies, accommodations and event organizers — well exceeds $47.3 billion, or 10 percent of the entire U.S. travel industry market. Hayase said his firm has received an unexpected number of orders and information requests for its travel packages. Also, a number of ordinary travel agencies and media have contacted the firm for tour information, possibly indicating increasing interest in the market. “If more ordinary firms enter the gay market, it may also ease prejudice against us by leading to greater daily interaction between gays and nongays,” he said.
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