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Move over, Argentina: Colombia vies to take over regional LGBT travel market

Colombia is working hard to shed its image as a war-torn drug haven, and it's emerged as a regional tourism destination. But it's undergoing a more subtle shift as well, building a reputation as an LGBT-friendly hotspot.

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    Colombia recognized same sex civil unions in 2007 and just last week the court ruled that gay couples can adopt a child as long as one of them is the biological parent. In this photo, a man waves a banner in front of Colombia's Congress building on Nov. 27, 2012.
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When Tatiana Piñeros took the helm of this city's tourism agency in July, she became the face and an example of Colombia's transformation.

Ms. Piñeros is the only transgender public official in a Catholic country where views on sexuality often skew conservative.

"I have a double responsibility," Piñeros says on a recent weekday. "First, as a public servant who has to handle public resources, and second as a representative of a sector. I can help open doors for others simply by doing a good job."

As Colombia sheds its image as a war-torn drug haven, it's emerging as a regional economic power and a tourism destination. But the country is undergoing a more subtle shift as well, building a reputation as an LGBT-friendly hotspot. And Bogotá, a city of 6.7 million people high in the Andes, is at the vanguard of that change.

The Chapinero neighborhood – with its bars, nightclubs and shops – is the epicenter of the city's gay culture. And perhaps there's no bigger landmark than Theatron, a sprawling 21,300-square-foot dance club.

Edison Ramirez, one of the bar's owners, says the city's culture has changed dramatically in the 20 years since he first opened a gay-friendly bar.

"In 1994, we were getting pressured by the police and you couldn't even put up a sign advertising your business," Mr. Ramirez says. "It was something completely clandestine."

Now, Theatron – thought to be one of Latin America's largest LGBT nightclubs – attracts some 5,000 people on a weekend, including visitors from around the world. After Colombia, most of the clientele comes from the United States, Venezuela, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil, according to the club's records.

But nightlife is just the most visible example of the shifting tide. About 19 months ago, Colombia became only the second country in Latin America to have a Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. (The other one is in Argentina.)

Felipe Cardenas is the president of the organization, which has almost 150 members in six cities. He said he's been surprised by the chamber's growth. Along with LGBT-owned businesses, companies like Delta, Barefoot Wine, and the country's largest chain of bookstores, Panamericana, have signed on.

"This society was incredibly closed," Mr. Cardenas says of Colombia, "but over the last five years I think people have come to understand that this isn't a passing fad, it's a reality."

And corporations are waking up to the power of LGBT dollars, he says. In October, the chamber is holding the We Trade Business Summit where US corporations will be looking for LGBT suppliers in Colombia. The event is being co-sponsored by the US Agency for International Development and falls under the umbrella of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Justin Nelson is the president and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, that helped launch the Colombian organization. The US chamber has a $4 million USAID contract to set up similar business groups in Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Chile.

While Colombia is just beginning to make a name for itself, it's strategically positioned to tap into the estimated $75 billion market of LGBT travelers from the United States, and steal some of Argentina's business, Mr. Nelson says.

"I love Buenos Aires, but it's also 13 hours away," he says. Colombia, on the other hand, is about 5 hours from New York and less than 4 hours from Miami.

"The gay traveler is on the move and they're looking for places where they are going to be welcome," he says, "where there's nightlife, restaurants, beaches – and that is something that Colombia has to offer."

Aviatur, one of Colombia's oldest travel companies with more than 4,000 employees, started a division called GayTravel just a few years ago. Last year, that division had about 2,000 clients and is seeing growth of 20 to 30 percent.

Most of the business, however, involves sending Colombians to gay-friendly destinations like Argentina, Mexico and Spain, says Aviatur President Sammy Bessudo.

"Colombia is just getting started in the LGBT market as a product," he says. "The countries that have managed to capture that niche have been able to do so largely because they've created accepting environments and that has included changing their laws."

Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, for example, allow same-sex marriage and use it as part of their tourist draw. Colombia recognized same sex civil unions in 2007. Just last week the court ruled that gay couples can adopt a child as long as one of them is the biological parent. The country is also coming out in other ways: there are two openly gay women in the presidential cabinet and at least two lesbians in congress.

Discrimination 'still an issue'

Even so, the picture is not entirely rosy here. In its recent report on violations against the LGBT community, Colombia Diversa, a civil society group, recorded more than 100 acts of aggression, including 87 homicides, in 2012. It also recorded 28 acts of police violence against the community, half of them against transgender women. Finally, the report also found that threats to LGBT members were on the rise, particularly in parts of the country where the 50-year civil conflict is most intense.

Toby de Lys and his partner Tigre Haller moved to Bogotá from the United States almost six years ago and they have since become some of the city's biggest LGBT boosters.

As they were doing research for their guidebook, ¡Bogota! A bilingual guide to the enchanted city, they engaged in a social experiment: holding hands and being affectionate in different neighborhoods throughout the city.

"The entire city is gay friendly," Lys concluded. "I am shocked that no one has thrown a bottle at us yet. They would throw a bottle at us in Greenwich Village."

But discrimination is still an issue, Piñeros says. While society is changing, not everyone has kept pace with the city's progressive laws. Transgender people often struggle to find work and many gays and lesbians remain closeted to keep their jobs, she said.

"The private sector has to separate the issues of diversity and religion," she says.

Piñeros recognizes she's something of a trailblazers for Colombia's LGBT community, but she said the issues she's tackling go beyond her identity as a transgender woman.

"What I'm interested in is diversity," she says. "A city that's friendly to the LGBT community is going to be friendly to anyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity."

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