“Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Gay Chinese Embrace Overseas Tours” read an article title on the Vice-esque government-controlled publication Sixth Tone. The article hints at a liberal dream slowly coming true: despite an uphill battle, gay travel agencies are popping up in China as the country is gradually becoming a more progressive and welcoming place for all. Unfortunately, the reality begs to differ.
While state-controlled publications on both ends of the political spectrum (“progressive” Sixth Tone and “patriotic” Global Times) have reported on the burgeoning Chinese gay travel trade, actual policy has headed in the opposite direction.
Grouped together with incest and sexual violence, depictions of homosexuality are deemed portrayals of “abnormal sexual behavior,” which is not allowed to be broadcast in China on or offline. Actions by Chinese internet giants and the industry watchdog Cybersecurity Administration of China were swift when the new policy was implemented, with popular LGBT accounts on social media taken down, and LGBT live-streaming services suspended.
As with most Chinese censorship, exactly where the line is drawn in practice is unclear, but the absence of LGBT travel bloggers on Chinese social media with any substantial following is telling.
The absence of LGBT travel bloggers on Chinese social media with any substantial following is telling
It’s a confusing market for travelers and entrepreneurs alike. Is gay travel condoned or even encouraged (as it appears to be judging by some reports in state media), or is it something the government takes issue with (as official policy and online censorship would suggest)?
Chinese startups servicing the LGBT community tell different stories. Beijing Kunlun Tech, a stock market listed gaming company, acquired 60 percent of leading gay dating app Grindr in 2016. One year later, Grindr and its parent company are alive and well, while lesbian dating app Rela was shut down by authorities in May.
Meanwhile, in the Chinese travel industry, you’ll struggle to find the website of even one gay travel agency.
Blue Ribbon Gay Tourism Agency, quoted by both Global Times and Sixth Tone as China’s oldest travel agency that provides LGBT-friendly packages, is very much operating in a vacuum. Similar to Chinese websites dealing with illicit content such as gambling and pornography, Blue Ribbon doesn’t use a Chinese domain name and lacks the proper permits to operate websites in China.
Despite being relatively active in previous years, Blue Ribbon’s website hasn’t been updated since January, and prospective travelers are encouraged to contact staff by other means. While still active on the social network QQ, it only sports 293 followers. Like many other fringe groups in China, Blue Ribbon relies on the relative privacy of Wechat groups to conduct business—in this case, organizing trips for its customers.
Cuke Travel, a gay travel company featured in Sixth Tones’ coverage, bears many similarities to Blue Ribbon. Its website holds little other information than an email address and phone number to its founder, with the remaining content being crossed out company names and license numbers as well as generic placeholder content.
To learn about any upcoming trips, you better be in the know already (perhaps by being a member of closed Wechat groups related to gay travel), or reach out to the founder by email directly. Hu Boyu, co-founder of Cuke Travel, tells Sixth Tone that “I wish I could show the audience the gay-related elements I’ve explored,” but that it’s impossible because of China’s broadcasting rules. The other co-founder chose to remain anonymous.
The other co-founder chose to remain anonymous
While the situation could certainly be worse, policy and the risk of arbitrary enforcement thereof cements gay travel as a highly fringe market segment in China’s growing travel industry. Whereas other narrow market segments and hobby-oriented types of travel have been allowed to flourish and grow into serious businesses, entrepreneurs in the gay travel space face a different set of hurdles that hinder business substantially.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that China’s LGBT community doesn’t travel or can’t enjoy gay travel experiences. For the latter, small Chinese operations like Blue Ribbon and Cuke Travel, not to mention larger international travel companies, provide a range of travel options catering to the LGBT community.
It’s certainly not as user-friendly or browsable as online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Ctrip and Fliggy, but at least it remains an option. For Chinese travelers, relying on international tour operators also subtracts from the ease of travel, particularly in terms of language.
Sadly, with sharing one’s travel experiences is becoming an increasingly integral part of the travel experience in and of itself, recent changes to broadcasting rules risk forcing some gay travelers to avoid that aspect of travel altogether.
In the end, all Chinese travel and travelers aren’t equal. Gay travel agencies in China find themselves in a legal gray area with little chance of taking their businesses mainstream, and gay travelers have limited travel options, face an all-but-straightforward booking experience, and may (depending on arbitrary enforcement) not be allowed to share their travel experiences with their peers. With the recent changes to China’s broadcasting laws, the future of gay travel in China is murkier than ever.
If the next gay travel agency in China is a Grindr—receiving substantial financial backing and reaches the mainstream—or suffers the same fate as Rela—vanishing into thin air—is anyone’s guess. Recent policy changes suggest that the latter is a more likely fate.