‘Roll out the rainbow carpet’: Can New Zealand become a hotspot for queer travellers?

For Martin King, next week can’t come soon enough. He admits he’ll be feeling a host of emotions, “excitement”, “anxiety”, “stress”, but ultimately “relief” as one of the country’s biggest LGBTQI+ festivals finally gets back underway, Winter Pride in Queenstown.

The past couple of years have been pretty tough on King, the festival’s director and co-owner. 2020’s event was a scaled down affair as New Zealand was mired in alert level 2. Then last year’s festival was days away from launch when another lockdown completely scuppered it.

King admits it’s been a struggle to stay positive.

“Resilience has been really key, and I think you just have to be optimistic about coming out the other end, but it’s been extraordinarily difficult, to the point of just … wanting to throw in the towel,” said King.

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While he admits he would have probably given it up if he was running a more standard festival, he kept going as “the reality with Pride is that you know there’s a bigger and more important objective which is bringing the rainbow community together to celebrate”.

King estimates Winter Pride pumps “millions and millions” into the Queenstown economy with more than 50% of ticket sales taken up by visiting Australians.

“Our average stay in Queenstown for Australians is seven plus nights, and for Kiwis is about five plus nights. whereas the average stay for a typical tourist to Queenstown is just over two nights based on Destination Queenstown data, so our audience stays longer, which means that they are spending more.”

Winter Pride is back for 2022.


Winter Pride is back for 2022.

Often overlooked, the size of the worldwide LGBTQI+ tourism market cannot be underestimated. Pre-Covid, the global yearly spend of rainbow travelers was US$218 billion or close to NZ$337 billion, not far behind the annual amount by Chinese tourists traveling overseas.

But King is frustrated by the lack of marketing of New Zealand to queer travelers around the globe, and that is echoed by Debbie Clarke, founder of LGBTQI+ tour guide company New Zealand Awaits and a former International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association global ambassador to Aotearoa.

“NZ is such a wonderful destination for LGBTQI+ travelers, yet we are not sending a loud enough invitation, compared to many other destinations around the world,” said Clarke, who wants the country to “roll out the rainbow carpet”.

While the gloss may have come off New Zealand’s reputation as an accepting country after a series of recent incidents, it is still rated as one of the safest places to visit for the rainbow community.

But Clarke said the most common question she gets asked shows that message isn’t getting across.

“One in three LGBTQI+ travelers report experiencing discrimination of some sort while travelling. So it’s not surprising that this is the first question I get from potential travelers: ‘Is NZ queer-friendly?’ Which means we haven’t done a good job of letting this market segment of travelers know that we are welcoming. I’ve had conversations with Tourism NZ about the past few years and the response has been that TNZ doesn’t target niche market segments.

Debbie Clarke (far right) runs a LGBTQI+ tour guide company.

Debbie Clarke/Supplied

Debbie Clarke (far right) runs a LGBTQI+ tour guide company.

“It’s also important to remember that LGBTQI+ people have family, friends, and allies who also want to support companies that value diversity and inclusion. The notion that extending a welcome to LGBTQ+ travelers is ‘niche marketing’ entirely misses the opportunity to let a much broader audience know that we are a country or a business that embraces diversity and inclusion.”

Clarke said other countries have taken the lead in establishing connections to rainbow tourism: “We’re very late to the game.”

Next year is a big one for the community in Australasia. For the first time ever, World Pride is being held in the southern hemisphere. Sydney is hosting in February and March one of the biggest events the city has seen since the Olympics in 2000. Along with a new pre-World Pride event in Queenstown called QT Adrenaline in mid-February, the Fifa Women’s World Cup in July and August , and a host of regular local events such as Auckland and Wellington Prides, New Zealand is well positioned to host rainbow travelers.

Johanna Mckenzie-Mclean/Stuff

All the fun from Winter Pride Queenstown. (video published August 2018).

Kwin Mosby is editor-in-chief of US-based Vacationer Magazine, which specializes in LGBTQI+ travel. he says New Zealand should be leveraging its reputation as a “queer-friendly country”.

“If LGBTQI+ revelers are traveling thousands of miles to visit Sydney for World Pride 2023, it just makes sense to spend additional time in the region to explore more of Australia and other nearby countries, such as New Zealand which is really appealing to queer outdoor enthusiasts and wine connoisseurs.”

Tyler Dunkel, who is Business Growth Manager for WellingtonNZ and formally on the board of Wellington Pride, said another reason to target the rainbow market is that it has already bounced back strongly since the depths of the pandemic: “Not only is queer tourism something which happens faster after bad situations, but we also spend more.”

However, Dunkel does warn not to paint the entire rainbow market with a broad brush.

“There is a lot of income disparity within our community. We tend to have people on both extremes. Some are working pay check to pay check that don’t have a lot of resources, and we have big double income, no kids couples who are quite well off and have a disposable income.”

It is that more high-end market that will probably appeal to Minister of Tourism Stuart Nash. He recently shared his vision for New Zealand to be one of the top three aspirational destinations for the “world’s most discerning travelers” and that future marketing “is unashamedly going to be at these high quality tourists”.

“We are going to welcome backpackers… [but] we are not going to target the people who put on Facebook how they can travel around our country on $10 a day eating two-minute noodles.”

But Dunkel said that while the more high-end rainbow spenders are valuable, those who are backpacking or on a work experience are also a hugely important market.

“A quarter of my friends here in Wellington are queer people from other countries who have come to New Zealand and liked it and stayed. Not only are we importing tourism, but we are also importing skills as well and that creates internal tourism throughout the country, and it creates economic development that is not talked about.”

Dunkel agrees with Clarke that the country isn’t doing enough to shout out how generally accepting New Zealand is, and that is also backed by Dr Willem Coetzee, Senior Lecturer Tourism at University of Otago.

“New Zealand is missing an incredible opportunity to promote NZ as a queer destination, especially on the back of the World Pride in Sydney next year,” said Coetzee.

“According to the Spartacus Gay Travel Index, which aims at finding a balance between measuring the rights of the rainbow community and considering the demands of queer holidaymakers, NZ is ranked 14th out of 202 countries. Some international attendees of World Pride will see NZ as a perfect short-trip destination, but we need to promote NZ to the community.”

He warns tourism businesses shouldn’t just slap a rainbow on their website and expect the community to show up.

“Authenticity is essential. Authenticity in working with the local LGBTQI+ community. The authenticity of messages and images and go beyond the stereotypes and show the diversity of LGBTQIA+ people.”

As he gets ready to welcome hundreds of visitors to Winter Pride next week, King is seeking a long term strategy to target the rainbow market “not just a quick flash-in-the-pan ‘oh Sydney is hosting World Pride, let’s piggyback off that’ approach … I wouldn’t support just jumping on the bandwagon, tick some boxes and then not having any more commitment, that’s just bullshit”.

“This is a place that is a welcoming and inclusive country, and we welcome people from all over the world. And we’ll put on a bloody good time while you’re here.”

Disclosure: The author is hosting an event during Winter Pride but is not otherwise affiliated with the festival.

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