Focus on LGBTQ+ travel

The gay cruise comes of age

LGBTQ+ travelers are seeking cruise itineraries and experiences that go beyond nonstop partying in the Caribbean, and lines have met evolving tastes with expanded offerings.

An image from Vacaya’s inaugural PTown Cruise in 2019. (Photo by Vacaya / Gabriel Goldberg)

An image from Vacaya’s inaugural PTown Cruise in 2019. (Photo by Vacaya / Gabriel Goldberg)

For decades, the thought of an LGBTQ+ cruise brought to mind one thing: a mega ship full of shirtless gay men — mostly cis, white, buff and tanned — plying the waters of the Caribbean to seemingly endless club music. And while that type of cruising is certainly still available and popular in some corners of the community, the ship options, itineraries and vibes have expanded tremendously. In today’s world, queer cruising might mean an LGBTQ+ family getaway on a typical (“straight”) itinerary, a group of Black lesbians chartering a luxury yacht to sail the coast of Spain for a week or a food-and-wine-focused European river cruise aimed at queer couples.

For sure, the LGBTQ+ community is a diverse one and not a demographic that a cruise line or travel operator can market to in one way or as a single entity.

“There’s just so much variety within the community,” said Rob Clabbers, the president of Q Cruise + Travel. “One of the biggest trends is that cruise lines and the operators that charter and run these specific LGBTQ-type cruises are all starting to realize that and are adjusting products to suit the desires of all these different groups within that big rainbow community.”

Clabbers noted that for those who do specifically want an all-queer experience, they now have that option in many destinations around the world.

“If you want to basically be at a circuit party on the big ship in the sun, you can do that. But if you want to travel with people that probably are a little bit more mature and have an interest in more than just partying, you can do that, too,” he said.

At the same time, he noted, some LGBTQ+ travelers aren’t looking to go on a queer cruise specifically. They will pick a cruise line and an itinerary that interests them. The focus for these travelers is simply to go, be accepted, have a wonderful experience and be given the same courtesy and respect that other travelers would get on a mainstream cruise.

“Most of the clients at our agency tend to come to us and say, ‘I just want to have a wonderful time. I don’t want to be feeling awkward when my husband and I are having dinner in the restaurant, celebrating an anniversary.’ And these days, I think it’s rare that we hear that is not accepted on a cruise ship. Most crews are perfectly comfortable with that,” Clabbers said.


Celebrity Cruises employees at the 2023 Miami Beach Pride Parade the line sponsors annually. (Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises)

Celebrity Cruises employees at the 2023 Miami Beach Pride Parade the line sponsors annually. (Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises)

Supporting queer travelers

Cruise lines have shown their support to the community over the years in a variety of ways. Cunard Line gets involved in Pride festivals in its key cities of Sydney, New York and Southampton, U.K., and invites queer guests to meet up in the flagship cocktail bar, The Commodore Club, to start each evening off right. Uniworld River Cruises has tapped LGBTQ+ tourism leaders to ensure that all guests feel welcome and safe onboard its ships, and it has a partnership with KelliGregg Travel, a pioneer in creating inclusive travel options.

Explora Journeys will welcome and celebrate its diverse guests through Prism, a gathering focused on LGBTQ+ guests and their allies. Curated gatherings, events and activities that are Prism-focused will occur throughout every journey. And Greek line Variety Cruises, a member of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA), has long supported the Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention line for queer youth, and was one of the first cruise lines to implement optional preferred pronouns in its day-to-day operations to support diversity and gender expression.

Another line, Seabourn, reaches the LGBTQ+ community by participating in various events, such as the Proud Experiences conference and the Pride Parade in Seattle, home of its global headquarters, according to Steve Smotrys, vice president of global sales.

“We have also created dedicated marketing materials that represent diverse couples to ensure the LGBTQ+ community feels represented,” Smotrys said. “As we generate awareness and the community hears more about us, from the ships, to the places we visit, to more detailed insight into their fellow guests, the interest level grows significantly, and that’s exactly what we aim to achieve.”

According to Duncan Greenfield-Turk, owner of Global Travel Moments, there has been a significant shift in the way the cruise industry has been marketing to the LGBTQ+ community in recent years.

“This demographic is being increasingly recognized and targeted as a valuable market segment,” he said. “Nowadays, a lot of cruise companies aggressively pursue LGBTQ+ passengers with focused advertising campaigns, unique events and custom itineraries.”

Craig Jarrett, who is chair of Royal Caribbean Group’s Anchored in Pride employee resource group, said Celebrity Cruises has partnerships and visibility at queer events worldwide and conducts its annual Pride at Sea sailings. But there are also little things they pay attention to that are quite important.

“We also place a focus on ensuring we represent this group with images of same-sex couples and families in our marketing and sales materials and by dedicating specific pages and content that speaks to this audience on our website and social media,” said Jarrett, who is also Royal Caribbean International’s director of global corporate, incentive, charter sales and operations.

Celebrity’s All-Inclusive Photo Project was the line’s answer to a lack of representation and diversity in travel marketing. According to Jarrett, they created the world’s first open-source photo library featuring ethnic, disabled, curvy and LGBTQ+ changemakers, in partnership with world-renowned photographers like Annie Leibovitz. There are now more that 90 images in the library, all of which are offered royalty free.

At Windstar Cruises, president Christopher Prelog said that the company strives to work with LGBTQ+ publications, blogs, social media channels and writers “in order to make sure the community is aware that Windstar is a welcoming option for those seeking an upscale, small-ship cruise.”


Guests on the Seabourn Ovation. (Photo by Seabourn / Doug Menuez)

Guests on the Seabourn Ovation. (Photo by Seabourn / Doug Menuez)

Changing attitudes

Most cruise lines today have comprehensive staff training to make all guests feel welcome, not to mention being welcoming toward queer staff. But there can be differences. Clabbers was impressed by an interaction with a member of the crew recently while on a sailing of Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady.

“We asked him what it was like to be a crew member on the ship. He said, ‘What I love about it is I can truly be myself. I’ve worked with other cruise lines before, and I always had to wear long-sleeved shirts, because I have tattoos going all the way down to my wrist, and I wasn’t allowed to show that. Some of the more mainstream lines care, but here at Virgin, they don’t. They are perfectly happy if you have earrings on, nose rings, or blue hair — or if you prefer to wear a skirt rather than trousers if you identify as a male. It’s all up to you.’ He said it’s a wonderful atmosphere to work in. So, it goes well beyond just the passengers. If the crew is happy, the passengers are happy. It just makes it for a very different environment and experience,” Clabbers said.

At Hermes Holidays, Olsen has had his staff undergo training workshops run by Billy Kolber from HospitableMe, a leader in hospitality inclusivity training. Powell said that Cunard employees undertake specific training to ensure people of all backgrounds and communities feel welcomed, are understood and are treated as individuals.

“One of our four brand values is to be ‘thoughtful,’ that is, to demonstrate warmth, respect and understanding of every individual, whether employee or guest,” said Lee Powell, vice president, brand and product, at Cunard.

Smotrys noted that the queer community has a passion for travel, with annual travel spending in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“But looking beyond the numbers, many of us believe in the power of travel to foster togetherness and strengthen understanding universally. The LGBTQ+ community is an integral part of that travel community,” he said.

Olivia Travel’s president and founder, Judy Dlugacz, sees that its clientele of LGBTQ+ women want to see everything and do everything when they travel; and they also want quality service and accommodations.

“We have taken over 350,000 women on hundreds of trips all over the world. We have an incredible return rate. Our trips appeal to all ages, ethnicities and sexual identities,” she said. “It has been our purpose to create the most incredible experiences for this extraordinary market.”

Olsen sees even more positives in the future of cruising, too.

“We are really starting to see an increasing number of exotic destinations being offered to queer travelers, which is great,” he said. “Social media has played an important role in this, and companies are using it to their advantage. There is nothing better to inspire you to explore new destinations than seeing real people living out travel dreams.”