Sandals ends long-term ban on gay couples

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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 Livingstone.

Sandals' ads in the U.K. once had contained the caveat "mixed-sex couples only."

Great Britain is Sandals' second-most important source market, after the U.S.

While 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 chain.

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 marketing strategy."

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 in love."

"There will be no departure from this original market niche," that letter continued.

A Sandals 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.

Dalrymble, who 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.

Sandals currently 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."

Ellen 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 problems."

She wondered, for example, if gay activists will swamp Sandals resorts, driving away heterosexual couples.

Gay travel experts dismissed such concerns.

Ed Salvato, 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."

Tom Roth, president and CEO of San Francisco gay research firm Community Marketing, said the turnaround has been a long time coming.

"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 "enlightenment."

"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].
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