It was billed as a typical Caribbean cruise for the moderately well-to-do: dancing in the discotheque, lounging by the pool, volleyball games on deck and stops for shopping and scuba diving at four tropical ports.
The only difference was that most of the 900 scheduled passengers on the cruise chartered by a West Hollywood travel agency are gay men.
And the government of one destination, Grand Cayman, doesn’t want them spending seven daytime hours on its streets and coral sand beaches.
Citing fears that gay visitors would fail to “uphold the standards of appropriate behavior,” the Cayman Islands minister of tourism denied Norwegian Cruise Line’s request to land Feb. 1.
“Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behavior expected of our visitors,” tourism minister Thomas C. Jefferson wrote to the cruise line. “So we regrettably cannot offer our hospitality.”
The letter sparked outrage among gay and civil rights groups in this country, who along with cruise line officials deny that passengers on gay chartered cruises have acted particularly rowdy or improperly and view this denial as an affront to a growing and affluent tourism sector.
“This is discrimination of the worst kind, and I think most Americans would find the position taken by the Cayman Islands repugnant,” said David M. Smith, a spokesman for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian political rights group.
“We thought this kind of homophobic reaction was a thing of the past,” said Richard Campbell of Atlantis Events, which chartered the cruise ship Leeward to embark Jan. 30 from Miami for seven days.
Officials of the island nation, a former British colony of three coral outcroppings whose 30,000 residents depend on tourism for their livelihood, would not comment Wednesday on the tourism minister’s letter.
Lori Tucker, a Dallas-based public relations executive whose company represents the Cayman government in the United States, said the country has had problems with gay tourists in the past. She would not elaborate, but offered a possible basis for the government’s decision.
“This is an ultraconservative, deeply religious country,” she said. “The bars close at midnight. There are no bathing suits past the pool.”
But Campbell said his passengers merely planned to go shopping in the capital or diving in the island’s crystalline waters and would have easily blended in with the 2,500 other cruise ship passengers scheduled to dock that day.
“These are people who spend about $1,000 to $2,000 to get there,” he said. “They tend to be a well-heeled group. It’s not a bunch of people running around in togas for a week.”
The ship is now scheduled to stop in Belize, also a former colony once known as British Honduras, which has issued a statement saying that it will welcome the gay chartered ship, Campbell said.
He said he has organized 32 gay trips, four of which are cruises that sailed into conservative ports in the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas without incident. But the snub of the Atlantis Events cruise was not the first time the Cayman Islands has expressed opposition to gay and lesbian tourists.
Paul Figlmiller, marketing director for the Minneapolis-based RSVP Travel Production, which specializes in gay and lesbian travel, said that after a cruise ship filled with 850 passengers was permitted to dock in the Caymans during a 1987 cruise, “we got a hostile reception from port authorities.”
But a Dolphin Cruise Lines ship carrying 800 women passengers, most of them lesbians, docked in the Cayman Islands last spring without a problem, said Judy Dlugacz, president of Olivia Cruises and Resorts of Oakland.
“We had avoided going there for a little while because we were aware of their reputation,” she said. “But we spent the day, and although we were told that a church group opposed us, there were no incidents.”
Dlugacz added that she would not book a cruise to the Cayman Islands now--a sentiment echoed by many in the gay community.
Richard Thompson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Assn., said the “serious homophobic behavior” expressed by the Cayman Islands official would result in him recommending that his group’s 1,350 members engage in a “buy-cott,” which means referring clients to other destinations.”
Cruise industry officials say that gay charters are a growing business. According to a study done by Mulryan/Nash, an advertising agency that helps companies target gay consumers, homosexuals are far more likely to take cruises than heterosexuals.
“The fact that there is a gay and lesbian travel organization is a sign that tourism directors should get past this issue,” said Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “This is economically foolish.”
Tom Neverman, who paid $2,500 to go on the Leeward cruise, said the detour to Belize was not going to cast a pall on his vacation.
“People need to be aware that these types of feelings are still out there,” he said.