Swiss city greets gay guests with open arms

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BASEL, Switzerland -- It may not scream sun and fun like South Beach or boast nightlife to rival London's, but this quiet Swiss arts center on the Rhine has set its sights on becoming a gay vacation destination.

To that end, tourism officials here crafted a commissionable gay vacation package as well as a discount-card program and are devoting 12% of marketing funds annually to court gay and lesbian travelers.

Their goal might not be as out-of-character for supposedly conservative Switzerland as it seems; cosmopolitan Basel -- the country's oldest university town, smack on the French and German frontiers -- prides itself on open borders and open minds, said city officials.

"We don't want to promote Basel as a 'gay city' like Amsterdam or San Francisco," said Daniel Egloff, director of the local tourism board, Basel Tourismus. "But many gay travelers are very interested in culture, and therefore Basel is an ideal city for them."

Indeed, Basel, with a population of 170,000, is home to 30 museums within a mere 14 square miles -- the highest such concentration among towns its size in Europe.

In addition, the city features a historical medieval core, scores of excellent restaurants, plenty of shopping and a friendly -- if small -- gay scene centered in the multicultural Kleinbasel neighborhood.

The traditional Swiss neutrality extends to matters of sexual orientation, as well.

"In Basel, every visitor is welcome; we don't set apart gay tourists from heterosexual ones," Egloff said.

Some specialists in gay travel said the time could be ripe for Basel's efforts, as gay vacationers -- typically "dinks" (double incomes, no kids) -- ponder whether to book umpteenth trips to Paris or the Netherlands.

"Gay and lesbian travelers now want something off the beaten path," said Thomas Roth, founding president and chief executive of tour operator Gayjet and president of researcher Community Marketing and agency-supplier consortium Travel Alternatives Group (TAG), all in San Francisco.

"Basel provides a great side trip or alternative stay for gays and lesbians who've been to Europe before, and our research suggests most have," he said.

Basel -- served by three national railways and an airport it shares with Mulhouse, France, and Freiburg, Germany -- is a quick trip from many European cities as well a good base for day trips to the rest of Switzerland, Germany's Black Forest or the French region of Alsace.

Roth added that although the city's certainly not a "gay mecca," he's found its museums a pleasant surprise.

"The Fondation Beyeler is a real eye-opener," he said. "It's worth a visit just to see it."

Arts and eats

The highlight of a trip to Basel for any visitor may indeed be a stroll through the garden and galleries of the Beyeler, in the nearby suburb of Riehen.

There, 200 works of "classic modernism" by a range of artists -- from Van Gogh and Monet to Warhol and Lichtenstein -- are displayed in natural daylight (alongside 25 examples of tribal art) in a trend-setting building that replaces a traditional roof with sheets of glass.

Other popular venues include the Museum Jean Tinguely, devoted to mechanical art installations by Basel's most famous native-born artist, and the Vitra Design Museum, in neighboring Weil am Rhein, Germany.

One collection of particular interest to gay visitors might be the Cocteau Kabinett, a display of some 1,000 books, drawings, ceramics and other items assembled by resident Max Madory, a fan of pioneering gay novelist and artist Jean Cocteau.

The collection, housed in Madory's apartment, is open on Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; visitors can ask to view the 1947 first edition of Jean Genet's novel "Querelle of Brest," illustrated by Cocteau.

General sightseeing musts include the 12th century Munster cathedral; the red-brick Town Hall on the Marktplatz, built in 1504; ferry rides across the Rhine; and strolls around the city's oldest quarter near St. Andrew's Square, now home to a lively alternative scene.

Dining-wise, a number of establishments are popular with gay Baselers, including Restaurant Kaserne + KaBar, Restaurant Balthazar and Au Violon brasserie, which serves up French cuisine in a former jail.

Specifically gay nightlife options are few -- clubs include L'Opera and Dupf -- but clients shouldn't be sent to Basel for the bars, as lively Zurich is an hour away by train.

The real deal

Built on elements of Basel's Weekend-Break 2002 short-stay package targeted at all travelers -- with accommodations in a range of two- to five-star hotels, breakfast and free public transport from about $40 per night -- the Gay Life Package from Basel Tourismus adds two discount perks -- a BaselCard (see sidebar below) and the new Basel GayCard -- and starts at $54 per night.

The GayCard, available only with the package, affords discounts of 10% to 15% at nine shops, a free drink at the Restaurant zur Rebe and Bar Elle et Lui, and reduced cover charges at local nightclubs.

The 15 hotels participating in the Gay Life package, which pays agents 10%, include the Basel Hilton, the Radisson SAS, the Merian am Rhein and the new, 107-room Victoria am Bahnhof, located in the city center next to the train station and a major tram stop.

Gayjet, which also can book the Gay Life package, offers its own Swiss Basel Adventure plan with air fare on Swiss and accommodations at either the Victoria, at $89 per person, double, or the Swissotel, at $114.

The Swiss Basel Adventure package pays 12% to TAG member agencies and 10% to others.

For more on gay travel to Basel, call Switzerland Tourism at (212) 757-5944 or (310) 260-2421. Or, contact Basel Tourismus at (011) 41-61 268-6868 or visit www.baseltourismus.ch.

GayCard pass just one of 4 visitor discounts

BASEL, Switzerland -- In addition to the GayCard, tourism officials here peddle three other discount visitor passes.

Basel is the first Swiss city to offer tourists unlimited public transportation via a pilot Mobility Ticket program.

Provided to each hotel guest upon check-in, the ticket -- good for travel on city trams and buses for the duration of a stay -- isn't free but is paid for by a daily $2 tax incorporated into nightly rates.

Meanwhile, the BaselCard offers free admission to 23 museums and the zoo; free city tours and cross-Rhine ferry rides; discounts of 10% to 60% at discos, restaurants and shops; and reductions on theater tickets and taxi rides.

The BaselCard is priced at about $17 for 24 hours, $22 for 48 hours and $30 for 72 hours; children's cards are half-price.

The city also takes part in a MuseumsPass program, which offers free entrance to permanent collections and special exhibits at 150 museums in France, Germany and Switzerland, including 19 in Basel.

A short-term MuseumsPass, good for four days in a month, costs about $20. -- K.K.

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