NEW YORK -
Sandals Resorts has lifted its longstanding ban on bookings by
same-sex couples at its Caribbean properties.
According to a
company statement, the all-inclusive resort chain, which operates
12 adults-only Sandals properties in Antigua, Jamaica, St. Lucia
and the Bahamas, has "refined" its couples-only policies to include
all adult couples. Although widely perceived in the market as a ban
aimed at gay and lesbian pairs, the mixed-sex requirement had also
effectively barred two friends or relatives of the same gender from
sharing a room at Sandals.
Hailed by gay
travel advocates, the move follows a year of legal wrangling with
authorities in London, who had banned Sandals advertisements on the
public transit system and were working to get them removed from the
city's famed black cabs "because they discriminated against
lesbians and gay men," according to the office of Mayor Ken
Sandals' ads in
the U.K. once had contained the caveat "mixed-sex couples
Great Britain is
Sandals' second-most important source market, after the
Livingstone's office publicly was taking credit for the about-face
at Sandals, the policy change - quietly implemented in August - had
been under consideration for some time, according to the
Sandals would not
comment further on why the change was made, or grant interview
requests for this article, but on Oct. 20 provided Travel Weekly
with a letter that officials said had been sent to travel agents to
explain the revised policy.
In the letter,
senior vice president of sales Mandy Chomat wrote that "as times
and attitudes change, so must Sandals."
The letter noted
Sandals will not depart from its "original mission: to provide
romantically involved couples with the Caribbean's only
ultra-inclusive experience" or its "current and successful
No mention is
made of either gender or sexual orientation.
In an earlier,
Oct. 15 letter, obtained by Travel Weekly from a New York-area
agent, Chomat writes that "it is important to highlight ... we will
continue to market exclusively to conventional male/female couples
"There will be no
departure from this original market niche," that letter
spokesman could not confirm whether both letters were sent to the
same set of travel agents or whether the difference in wording
reflected a refinement to the new booking policy.
Some agents note
there's a difference between "accepting" gays and marketing to
them, and that difference is a matter of concern to Kirk Dalrymble,
owner of Yankee Clipper Travel in San Francisco, who said, "I'd
like to see Sandals reps come in and give me some co-op dollars so
I could advertise through ... some gay newspapers. They need to
back it up."
He said he has
steered both hetero- and homosexual clients away from Sandals since
running afoul of the same-sex ban in the mid-1990s.
threatened the chain with legal action over the anti-gay policy,
said he was rebuffed, in homophobic language, when trying to book a
mother and daughter at Sandals by a call-center agent who assumed
the pair were lesbians.
After he began
legal proceedings and worked with San Francisco officials to ban
Sandals ads from billboards on city-owned property, Dalrymble said
he ultimately dropped his campaign when Sandals Resorts promised
that all travelers - including homosexual couples - would be
welcome at the company's new Beaches properties, the first of which
opened in 1997.
runs four such Beaches resorts - three in Jamaica and one in the
Turks and Caicos - that accept singles, couples, families and
groups, in all gender and age combinations.
Now, the new
policy brings the couples-only Sandals resorts into line with the
status quo at Beaches.
Agents such as
Diane Moore, of Crossroads Travel in Milwaukee, welcomed the
change. Moore, who books "considerable" business for Sandals, said
that even though she doesn't have a big gay clientele, she sees a
benefit for her agency.
"Before, if there
were two single family members who wanted to attend a wedding, we
had to book the event at Beaches," she said. "Now, we can look at
Sandals availability as well."
Schwartzberg, part-owner of honeymoon specialist In and Out Travel
in Lindenhurst, N.Y., said she is not sure what to tell clients
booking Sandals stays.
"My impression as
an agent is that most people who do book Sandals perceive the chain
as heterosexual only," she said.
"No client has
ever asked, and I've never felt the need to say, there are no gay
people at Sandals, but I can still foresee some
She wondered, for
example, if gay activists will swamp Sandals resorts, driving away
experts dismissed such concerns.
editor of gay travel monthly Out & About, said Sandals product
doesn't hold appeal for most gay travelers.
"I just don't
think the floodgates are going to open," he said.
"But I'm glad
Sandals finally woke up and may be recognizing the potential of
this travel market, in which gays and lesbians are estimated to
spend about $54 billion a year."
Out & About
had "awarded" Sandals its "Rock Bottom" editors' choice award 11
years in a row for what Salvato termed its heretofore "egregiously
homophobic policies, unthinkable in this day and age."
president and CEO of San Francisco gay research firm Community
Marketing, said the turnaround has been a long time
"This was one of
the dark spots in gay and lesbian tourism," he said.
Asked how he
would address the concerns of agents upset or confused by the
policy change, Roth said travel has always been about
"Gay people are a
part of society and wherever their clients are traveling now, there
will be gay people," he said.
Sandals' move to
accept pairs of all stripes leaves only one major all-inclusive,
couples-only operator in the Caribbean market, Couples Resorts,
with mixed-sex strictures at some of its properties.
According to a
Couples spokeswoman, the chain - with three resorts in Jamaica -
"respects everyone's personal lifestyle decisions" but "maintains
an open policy to all couples" at just one property, Couples Swept
Away in Negril.To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send
e-mail to[email protected].