Fla. Town Faces Threat to Gay-Friendly Ranking
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The city of Fort Lauderdale won an important travel award. It was named best gay resort in a readers' poll conducted by Out Traveler magazine. The publication covers the $55 billion a year gay travel industry.
But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, not everyone in Fort Lauderdale is pleased with the distinction.
GREG ALLEN: To understand Fort Lauderdale's appeal to gay travelers, a good place to start is the Royal Palms Guest House.
Richard Gray is the owner.
Mr. RICHARD GRAY (Owner, Royal Palms Guest House): We are not a traditional type of guest house, so you know you're going to be in someone's home, going upstairs and whatever. You know, it's a resort-like atmosphere with a pool area, clothing optional.
ALLEN: Clothing optional. Nude sunbathing is popular at the Royal Palms and it's something you can't do at the St. Regis or The W, Fort Lauderdale's two newest luxury hotels. But it's also luxurious and intimate, just 12 rooms set in a tropical garden with orchids in every room, and it's just two blocks from the beach. As it happens, it was talk about the beach and the need for more public restrooms there that over the summer put Fort Lauderdale in the national news.
The city's mayor, Jim Naugle, kick-started the controversy by saying he wanted to build an expensive, self-cleaning, single-occupancy toilet at the beach because he said it would deter homosexual activity in public restrooms. Protests and condemnations by gay activists, public officials and business leaders soon followed. A factor in all of this is that Fort Lauderdale is a gay travel destination. Gay tourism brings in nearly a billion dollars a year.
Mayor JIM NAUGLE (Democrat, Fort Lauderdale): There was an attempt from some in the radical homosexual community and their pals over in the liberal media that tried to smear my good name.
ALLEN: Mayor Naugle says he's not sorry about any of his comments the ones about the toilet or the problem, he says, Fort Lauderdale has with homosexual activity in public places.
Mayor NAUGLE: No one can find any example of anything that I've said that was improper or hateful or bigoted or homophobic. I'm just a mayor that's concerned about what happens in my parks. And we're curtailing those activities in the community. People are reporting the activities. We're making an arrest, and we're trying to clean up the community.
Ms. NICKI GROSSMAN (President, Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau): We were very concerned that just the tone of those remarks might be interpreted as a sentiment of the destination.
ALLEN: Nicki Grossman is president of the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. She and her staff immediately reassured gay groups and the public at large that despite the mayor's comments, Fort Lauderdale is still a gay-friendly destination. She was relieved when talk about possible gay boycott went nowhere. There weren't the cancellations some feared, and she says Fort Lauderdale's recognition by Out Traveler magazine is further vindication. As head of the convention and visitors' bureau, Grossman says no one would be more concerned than her about reports of sexual activity in public places. But she says the mayor's charges don't hold up.
Ms. GROSSMAN: Police department records do not support the mayor's claims, period, end of sentence. We've moved on. And I think the fact that Out Traveler has named us as a favorite gay destination again in 2007 means that the traveling public has moved on as well.
ALLEN: Fort Lauderdale's marketing to gay travelers and, in fact, the visitors in general is one that's built on luxury. It's more than 20 years now since the resort consciously began working to shed its image as a spring break destination for college students.
It was about 10 years ago when the gay travel industry began to emerge that Fort Lauderdale began its rainbow campaign. Now, there are dozens of restaurants, clubs, guest houses, and hotels that cater to the gay clientele.
At the Royal Palms, owner Richard Gray is pleased that his business received its own award by Out Traveler this week, voted the best gay resort guest house. Gray says he's no longer worried that Mayor Naugle's comments might affect either his business or Fort Lauderdale's appeal to gay travelers.
Mr. GRAY: There are very few destinations that have what we have, which is over 150 gay-owned and operated businesses, you know, great gay bars, great gay restaurants, wonderful new up-and-coming trendy restaurants, I mean, you know, shop. I mean, we have what gay travelers really want.
ALLEN: Fort Lauderdale's Convention and Visitors' Bureau expects gay travel to rise in the coming year. In December, it's welcoming an international conference on gay and lesbian tourism. As for Mayor Naugle, term limits means he'll be leaving office in 2009. He says he'll be happy returning to his old job in the private sector as a realtor.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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