Exploring the Evolution of LGBTQ+ Travel in Asia

Exploring the Evolution of LGBTQ+ Travel in Asia

In a watershed moment, Taiwan blazed a trail in 2019 by legalising same-sex marriage, setting a precedent for LGBTQ+ rights across Asia. Building on this momentum, the country took another significant stride forward in 2023 by legalising gay adoption, solidifying its commitment to inclusivity.

Meanwhile, Nepal celebrated a historic milestone at the end of 2023 with its first-ever gay wedding, marking a profound shift towards acceptance and equality. Although Thailand has yet to legalise same-sex marriage, the nation endorsed a groundbreaking bill to redefine marriage as a union between two “individuals,” a pivotal advancement in LGBTQ+ rights in Asia. With only 36 countries worldwide recognising same-sex marriage, Taiwan’s groundbreaking legislation stands as a beacon of progress for the continent. Nonetheless, the journey towards achieving full LGBTQ+ equality in Asia is far from over.

Navigating Asia as an LGBTQ+ traveller can come with its own set of challenges, but it’s also a region dotted with inclusive communities that offer support and ease of travel akin to any other destination. As Pride Month unfolds, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the evolving landscape of LGBTQ+ travel across Asia in recent years.

Preparing for a trip as an LGBTQ+ traveller
Preparing for an LGBTQ+ trip in Asia involves a mix of excitement and caution. While there’s a growing acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ+ community in many parts of the region, there are also areas where discrimination and legal restrictions persist.

Image Courtesy of Nomadic Boys
Image Courtesy of Nomadic Boys
Image Courtesy of Nomadic Boys

Nomadic Boys, a French/Greek gay couple from London who run their own blog, spend a lot of time researching online for gay-friendly accommodations and activities. “When unsure, we always call or email ahead to ask. In some cases, they will have press or some form of online content about their offerings to the LGBTQ+ community,” said co-owners Stefan Arestis and Sebastien Chaneac, “We also look for companies that are affiliated with LGBTQ+ organisations like IGLTA.” When planning a trip to destinations with anti-gay laws, they often look into whether gay tour companies offer tours there.

Gay travellers often rely on gay-specific blogs for their research rather than generic ones. However, Tuk Nurnsakate, co-founder of The Gay Passport, notes that while researching, it’s important to remember that every Asian country is different. “Some countries like Thailand and Taiwan, are very liberal, whereas others, like China and parts of Indonesia, are more conservative,” he explained. “Gay apps are banned in some countries, so don’t be surprised if your Grindr doesn’t work in every city or is illegal in some.” He said that it’s also crucial to respect a country’s traditions when visiting. “Understand that you’re a guest in their country and that you need to abide by their customs and rules.”

LGBTQ+ friendly countries in Asia
As the largest continent globally, Asia boasts a diverse array of countries, each with its own unique customs and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ travellers. According to Arestis and Chaneac, Thailand is their number one favourite destination in Asia. “It’s super gay-friendly, the Thai are used to LGBTQ+ travellers and don’t bat an eyelid when they see us,” they said, “The gay scene of Bangkok is one of the best in the world.”

Besides being gay-friendly, Thailand is generally one of the top destinations for travellers in general. “Thailand also has terrific food, a rich Buddhist culture to discover in places like Chiang Mai, and some of the best beaches we’ve ever been to, not to mention beautiful islands. Koh Lipe is our favourite,” he said.

Tuk Nurnsakate, co-founder, The Gay Passport

Nurnsakate concurs. “The Silom area has been the centre for gay partying in Thailand for over twenty years. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) specifically supports this market with its Go Thai Be Free campaign, which promises LGBTQ+ travellers a safe and fun time in the country,” he said, “What’s more, hotels in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, market to the LGBTQ+ community, with Hotels like SO/ Bangkok and The Standard pushing boundaries in marketing by featuring same-sex couples in their promotional material.”

Taiwan has also earned acclaim as a premier destination for LGBTQ+ travel. Taiwan’s pride march, a longstanding tradition since 2003, has garnered significant participation, with the 2023 edition drawing an impressive 80,000 participants. The vibrant gay scene of Taipei revolves around the Ximen Red House area, featuring popular bars such as Cafe Dalida, The Secret Garden, Hero, and Hunt. Additionally, 228 Peace Memorial Park is renowned as one of Taiwan’s most iconic gay spots. Notably, Gin Gin stands out as Taiwan’s pioneering gay bookstore, marking a significant milestone as the first LGBTQ+ bookstore in the Chinese-speaking world, as reported by Gay Times.

Japan is emerging as a rising destination for LGBTQ+ travellers, despite ongoing developments in the LGBTQ+ rights within the country. While Japanese society tends to lean conservative, each city boasts its own distinct and evolving gay scene. “Japan is also one of our favourite destinations,” shared Arestis and Chaneac, “In Tokyo, the gay scene is based in Shinjuku’s Ni-chōme and has over 300 small gay bars clustered together.”

Nurnsakate added, “The Japanese have a very tolerant society and believe people should live and let live. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka have vibrant LGTBQ+ communities.”

In the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where homosexuality was once considered a crime, significant changes are underway. In 2021, the region made a decisive move towards progress as King Druk Gyalpo signed off on a law amending the country’s penal code, effectively decriminalising homosexuality, as reported by DW News. “There is a high degree of acceptability of the LGBTQ+ community in our society,” finance minister Namgay Tshering said at the time, per the source.

Arestis and Chaneac said they fell in love with the place. “It’s only recently opened up to tourism and has a strong focus on high value, low volume tourism – you have to pay a daily tourist fee and be part of a tour,” said Arestis and Chaneac, “As such it’s quite expensive to visit, but so worthwhile.”

While Hong Kong has not historically been seen as a particularly LGBTQ-friendly destination for travellers, efforts have been made to promote inclusivity in recent years. The Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, for example, is an annual international event dedicated to LGBTQIA+ cinema, held every September since its founding in 1989. As the oldest LGBT film festival in Asia, it plays a significant role in raising awareness and celebrating queer culture in the region.

Moreover, despite opposition from anti-LGBTQ lawmakers, the Hong Kong Gay Games took place last year, as reported by The Standard.

In addition, Walk in HK holds the distinction of being Asia’s sole English-speaking LGBT tour. Curated by Benita Chick, the tour fills a significant gap in the exploration of Hong Kong’s non-academic gay history, spotlighting aspects such as gay saunas and bars that have been overlooked in previous narratives. Stops along the tour include a visit to a gay sauna near the Mid Levels escalator, a vibrant rainbow staircase, and a revolutionary bar that served as Hong Kong’s premier gay hangout for nearly a quarter-century.

Benita Chick

“I think the Hong Kong community is generally quite accepting of LGBTQ+ people,” said Chick. In 2023, 69% of Hong Kongers said they were either moderately or very accepting of gay men and lesbians, according to a study by the University of Hong Kong. “There are more and more commercials and TV shows showcasing gay relationships in a positive manner, and LGBTQ+-related hate crimes are relatively rare. LGBTQ+ events such as Pink Dot are very popular,” she added. “There was a gay couple in their 80s from New York who said they would never venture to a gay bar at their age, but felt comfortable learning about gay life through our tour.”

LGTBQ+ friendly hotels in Asia
Researching hotels that have implemented LGBTQ+ friendly policies is crucial for ensuring a comfortable and welcoming stay for LGBTQ+ travellers – finding consistent ones is also key.

“One thing we’ve learnt is that the big brand hotels like Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, have international standards against discrimination and how they welcome guests,” said Arestis and Chaneac, “We know that when we stay in one of these hotels anywhere in the world, we won’t need to worry about sharing a double bed.”

Neil Li, General Manager, Centara Reserve Samui

At Centara Reserve Samui, this is fully implemented across the property. “Centara Reserve Samui is proud of our commitment to equality and we will continue striving for an end to any kind of discrimination, in every area of society.” Within Koh Samui, they are planning to partner with local restaurants and businesses that are owned and operated by the LGBTQ+ community, who will be invited to do pop-up events in the hotel. “We are currently in conversation with the organisers of Samui Pride Month to see how we can support and participate in this fabulous month of festivities on the island,” added Li. The hotel added that they are also open to working with LGBTQ+ influencers who can connect them with the global LGBTQ+ community on platforms like Instagram and Little Black Book.

Similarly, all properties under S Hotels & Resorts are listed as LGBTQ+ friendly on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Go Thai Be Free portal. “We have also hosted several LGBTQ+ events and weddings at our resorts in Koh Samui, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi,” stated Michael Marshall, CEO of S Hotels & Resorts.

Image Courtesy of Centara Reserve, Samui
Image Courtesy of Centara Reserve, Samui

Challenges for LGBTQ+ travellers in Asia
LGBTQ+ travellers often encounter a distinct set of challenges while on the road. One of these hurdles involves the need to “go back into the closet,” particularly when visiting conservative countries. “Specifically, we avoid all public displays of affection and save these for queer-friendly spaces. In the more extreme cases, we book twin beds in a guesthouse when not unsure if the host is gay-friendly,” said Arestis and Chaneac. The primary method for overcoming these challenges is through research to determine the extent to which one may need to conceal their identity. This process typically involves assessing whether there are any anti-gay laws in place and gauging the level of conservatism within the society they are visiting. “Based on this we can decide whether or not we do actually want to go, or if we do, do we travel acting as two ‘friends’, and consider hiring a gay-friendly guide to help us navigate any complicated scenarios,” noted Arestis and Chaneac.

Nurnsakate pointed out that while some nations worldwide are known for being disrespectful or even hostile towards gay travellers, the majority of Asia stands in contrast to this perception. It’s simply a matter of conducting thorough research, considering Asia’s vast diversity of countries and cultures. “While LGBTQ+ travellers more widely head to Southeast Asia, North Asian countries like China and [South] Korea are absolutely worth visiting, although acting more discreetly is the smarter move,” he advises.

Benita Chick says that in Hong Kong, there is certainly room for change. “There is also a small group of very conservative religious people who are against the ‘gay lifestyle’ and protest whenever they can,” she noted, “To improve the situation, I think we need more LGBTQ+ like models in different sectors of society to showcase the diversity of LGBTQ+ lives. This may help change the mindsets of more conservative individuals and make them more accepting of LGBTQ+ people.”

The evolvement of LGBTQ+ travel in Asia
While there is still ample room for improvement, it’s undeniable that travelling in Asia as an LGBTQ+ tourist is progressively becoming easier.

Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder, Remote

According to Job van der Voort, the CEO and co-founder of Remote, a global HR solutions and employment tool platform, there has been an increasing trend towards more inclusiveness for LGBTQ+ travellers and remote workers in Asia’s markets. “These markets that demonstrate greater openness and acceptance towards diverse populations will likely be able to attract talented individuals from around the world,” he said, “In our own report, we found that cities like Tokyo and Taipei are also relatively inclusive – our Global Life-Work Balance Index published in 2023 ranked them at 64 and 66 out of 100 cities respectively in terms of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity.”

Chick asserts that tours like hers, including an LGBTQ+ tour scheduled for June 21, play a vital role in educating people about gay culture, regardless of whether they identify as straight or gay. “The tour has been eye-opening for them, showing that the LGBTQ+ community is very welcoming,” she said, “Through the tour, participants are able to reflect on why some gay spaces remain hidden, and what more can be done to ensure LGBTQ+ people are fully accepted in Hong Kong society.”

Arestis and Chaneac highlighted that through collaborations with hotels, they’ve encountered individuals who may not have previously interacted with openly gay couples. Such encounter provide visibility and can contribute to greater understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals. “For a lot of people, gay people are represented as something sad, wrong or freakish in their local soap operas or new bulletins,” they said. “Anything that shows LGBTQ+ people in a positive light goes a long way to changing attitudes and therefore creating positive and productive conversations that will inevitably lead to progressive change.”

Similar with Nurnsakate, he has seen a lot of change in LGBTQ+ inclusivity in Asia in recent years. “I visited gCircuit 2014, a circuit party in Bangkok, and was blown away by the epic marketing campaign, which made planning my time easy,” he said, “It was one of the first times, I was truly world-class event marketing for LGBT Asia.”

As LGBTQ+ travel continues to gain momentum across Asia, it’s evident that progress is being made, albeit with ongoing challenges and areas for improvement. From Taiwan’s pioneering legislation to Hong Kong’s evolving cultural landscape, and from grassroots initiatives like Benita Chick’s tours to collaborations with hotels by Arestis and Chaneac, the region is witnessing a shift towards greater inclusivity and acceptance.

While hurdles such as legal barriers and societal attitudes persist, the growing visibility and advocacy efforts within the LGBTQ+ community and among allies signal a promising trajectory for the future of LGBTQ+ travel in Asia. As we celebrate Pride Month and beyond, let’s continue to support and champion diversity, equality, and respect for all travellers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sign up for our newsletters to have the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox every week.

Faye Bradley

Contributor

Faye Bradley
Recommended For You
Life at BurdaLuxury – Kook Chantan

Life at BurdaLuxury – Kook Chantan

Kook is one of our Lifestyle Writers for Lifestyle Asia Thailand. Specialising in Drinks and Dining, Kook takes readers on a spicy journey (to say the least), and he never misses a beat. Can you tell us about your career journey at BurdaLuxury?This is my third year working at BurdaLuxury. I had worked in the […]

BurdaLuxury Announces Bryan Goh as Editor of Lifestyle Asia Singapore

BurdaLuxury Announces Bryan Goh as Editor of Lifestyle Asia Singapore

Bangkok, 4 June 2024 – BurdaLuxury, one of Asia’s leading media companies, announced the appointment of Bryan Goh as the Editor of Lifestyle Asia Singapore, effective June 3, 2024. Goh joins BurdaLuxury from Heart Media Group, where he served as the Beauty & Grooming Director at Men’s Folio Singapore and Grazia Singapore.   “I am thrilled […]

Life at BurdaLuxury – Nina Tanti-Aksornvaj

Life at BurdaLuxury – Nina Tanti-Aksornvaj

Nina is the Social Media Executive for Lifestyle Asia Thailand. Focused on growing the follower base for Lifestyle Asia Thailand, Nina is always scouting for fresh, engaging content that is set to deepen the audience’s connection with the brand. Can you tell us about your career journey at BurdaLuxury?BurdaLuxury is the first company I joined […]