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San Francisco works to lure gay travelers

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

San Francisco, a city synonymous with gay history and culture, is launching its first national campaign urging gay men and lesbians to visit.

That may sound as superfluous as suggesting that politicians come to Washington, D.C., or that surfers try the waves off Malibu. But it's not, and why it's not says a lot about how many cities these days are pitching to gay tourists. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dallas and dozens of other destinations are openly diving for dollars — lavender dollars, that is.

"Gay and lesbian people were coming here and having a great time but being wooed by other cities too," said Angela Jackson, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. So the bureau this month announced a $100,000 advertising campaign in gay publications such as the Advocate and Frontiers Magazine in Los Angeles, the Flying House in Seattle and New York-based Passport.

The ads, which show snapshots of gay couples at the Golden Gate Bridge and other landmarks and at gay events such as the Folsom Fair, say, "You'll have so many new stories to tell, you'll need proof." Last month the tourist bureau also beefed up the gay section of its website.

City officials, in fact, can't say whether fewer gays are visiting the city that is home to Castro Street, the late city Supervisor Harvey Milk and other lavender icons.

"It's hard to track," Jackson said. "When people check into hotels, we don't ask if they're gay or straight."

But the bureau's president and chief executive, Joe D'Alessandro, said the city can't afford to take the gay traveler for granted and needs to "maintain and grow market share."

San Francisco, in fact, has slipped to third place in an annual survey of favorite gay destinations conducted by Community Marketing Inc., a market-research company in San Francisco. For years, Fog City ranked second to New York in the survey, which asks gay and lesbian travelers where they have had at least one overnight trip in the last year, said David Paisley, senior projects manager for Community Marketing Inc., a market research company in San Francisco.

Over the last decade, the number of North American cities marketing to gays has grown from "just a handful" to at least 75, Paisley explained. When his company expanded the list of destinations it presented to survey takers in 2004, he said, "Las Vegas shocked everyone by coming in No. 2."

Sin City's secret?

"Las Vegas has more money than God," Paisley said. "They've been very, very aggressive in marketing to gays and lesbians in the last five years." All that neon and glamour, plus burgeoning gay nightlife, don't hurt either.

So now New York ranks No. 1, Las Vegas is No. 2 and San Francisco is No. 3 in the survey — although, if you adjust for San Francisco's smaller population, it would rank No. 1, Paisley said.

However it markets itself, experts don't see San Francisco falling off the radar of gay tourists.

"San Francisco still maintains its luster and allure and Oz-like quality as a must-visit place for gay people," said Ed Salvato, editor in chief of OutTraveler, a quarterly online and print travel publication in New York that claims 250,000 subscribing households.

The challenge, he added, is getting gay visitors to return after they've made the first pilgrimage.

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