During his first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Stephen Schmitz attended the Bourbon Street Costume Contest, hosted by two of the most notable local drag queens.
“It was raucous, it was rowdy, it was slightly inappropriate,” says the executive at a Louisiana advertising and public relations firm. “But I was struck by the amount of families with children at the event. I don’t know many other places where straight families go watch huge public drag shows.”
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That atmosphere helped New Orleans take the crown (or tiara?) as the second most gay-friendly city, according to Travel + Leisure readers. The annual America’s Favorite Cities survey asks readers to rank 35 cities in categories such as walkable streets and great ethnic food. This year, we added gay-friendly travel, and while cities with an obvious connection to the gay rights movement—such as San Francisco and New York—ranked near the top, so did some less obvious places that have clearly made a point to welcome the LGBT community.
It’s a smart move. According to marketing firm CMI, LGBT travelers now account for about $70 billion in the U.S. travel industry. “When the economy slowed down, travel companies realized they needed to diversify their customer base, and they saw an opportunity: gay couples with double incomes,” says Jason Couvillion, partner at agency Alternative Luxury Travel.
Being a gay-friendly destination these days means more than having a selection of bars or a gayborhood: “It needs to be more than just putting up a rainbow flag,” says John Clifford, president of agency International Travel Management. “It’s about sensitivity and savvy.”
At a hotel, that savvy may result in a staff that doesn’t blink at a same-sex couple booked for a honeymoon package. In Las Vegas, the Wynn and Encore now offer gay guests a “pride concierge,” while in Honolulu, the Sheraton Waikiki has an on-site office for civil-union licenses.
At least as important, but less tangible, is the sense of welcome a city conveys. In No. 6–ranked Providence, RI, “I don’t fear holding my wife’s hand when I walk downtown, even late at night,” says Desiree Sousa, owner of the Gay Travel Information blog. “And I don’t stop myself from introducing her as ‘my wife’ at local businesses. There is an overall accepting vibe. When I travel, I want to feel safe being myself.”