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The Travel Industry 's Growing Conscience

How Travelers Stepped Up After Disasters

From fires to hurricanes, it was a rough year for popular destinations. Thankfully, the travel industry is offering assistance to locals, including LGBT residents and employees.

Certainly 2017 proved to be one of the world's worst in terms of natural disasters -- particularly those hitting top travel destinations -- from the fires that roared through California (beginning with wine country all the way to San Diego) to the multiple earthquakes that rocked Mexico, and the numerous hurricanes that devastated portions of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. The destruction and loss was heartbreaking. In some areas, many of the people impacted most -- due to both chronic inequity and discriminatory relief efforts -- were LGBT.

With plentiful resources, and a self-serving interest in the recovery of these destinations, what role should the travel industry play in helping locals, and specifically local LGBT communities, through these types of crises? And what role should those of us who've traveled to these places play?


"When it comes to giving, it is a fact that people who are closer to an issue generally give more to that issue," says Charlie Rounds, the gay executive director of Alturi (, a global nonprofit focused on improving the lives of LGBT people around the world. "People who have pets give to animal shelters, people who have family members with cancer give to cancer organizations. So, when it comes to those of us who are fortunate enough to travel, we have to hope that we will give to those who welcomed us into their countries."

In the wake of these disasters, many travel and hospitality companies didn't hesitate to come to the aid of those in need, providing food, water, fuel, evacuation transportation, and temporary shelter. Alturi teamed up with gay travel companies Atlantis Events and RSVP Vacations to raise money and support LGBT island communities through charities already serving local queer and trans residents, Centro Comunitario LGBTT de Puerto Rico and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities.

Regardless of whether a disaster is natural or political, Rounds feels both travelers and the hospitality industry that profits from them have a responsibility to help people in crisis around the world -- and not to forget LGBT people who are facing persecution and violence. "Right now people in the Caribbean are suffering greatly from recent hurricanes. Egyptians are being arrested and jailed and need our help [too]. LGBT people in Kenya and Uganda are fighting every day to have better lives. As travelers, I have to hope that we will give generously to the LGBT communities of countries that we have visited."


Rounds walks his talk. For example, he helped establish a revolutionary hospitality training program for LGBT youth in the Dominican Republic -- a country less than tolerant. "Three years ago, Alturi brought together key stakeholders to try and understand how the travel industry could help the Caribbean LGBTQ community, and ... how [they] could assist the industry in improving the travel experience for LGBTQ travelers."

In partnership with Marriott International, Alturi ended up creating a one-week training program for LGBT youth to get hands-on experience and gain the skills they need "to become future leaders in the Dominican hospitality industry."

Rounds says participants "saw firsthand that their sexual orientation or gender identity would not be a barrier to working for the world's largest hospitality company."

David Nelson, a gay senior portfolio analyst at Royal Caribbean Cruises, echoes Rounds's thoughts on the travel industry paying it forward: "The secret success of any business is to ensure at difficult times people are considered first, before the bottom line."

In the weeks following hurricanes Irma and Maria, Royal Caribbean sent three of its ships to evacuate over 5,500 people from Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. Refugees were treated like regular guests on the "evacuation cruises" and provided comfortable cabins, medical assistance, and complimentary meals.

The company also provided relief resources for several thousand Royal Caribbean employees who were affected in hard hit areas of southern Florida. "When Hurricane Irma took a direct path and was heading to our corporate office in Miami, the company offered an evacuation cruise to all shoreside employees," Nelson says. "Each employee was offered up to two cabins with eight guests. Although pets are not [usually] allowed, the company did not turn anyone away, including four-legged friends."

The company's dedication to its LGBT employees is evident in its nondiscrimination policies and progressive practices, says Nelson, who is also chairman of the company's LGBTQ employee resource group, Anchored in Pride. "Royal Caribbean [was] the first cruise line to create a diversity and inclusion division for all of their employees to participate," he says. "It gives a chance for the underserved groups to have a voice and connect in a fun environment while networking with other employees and in the LGBTQ communities."


The employee organization has held flag-raising ceremonies, observed National Coming Out Day, and raffled off cruises to support local LGBT organizations. In addition, Nelson says Anchored in Pride has partnered with LGBT employee resource groups at other companies (including American Airlines, Marriott, and JetBlue) and Atlantis Events to raise funds for local LGBT nonprofits in the regions impacted by disasters.

"It's been amazing networking together with these great companies in the hospitality industry," Nelson says, "and making them aware of the efforts -- set up with Atlantis and Alturi -- to make donations specifically for Caribbean islands affected."


Above: David Nelson (second from right, wearing an Anchored in Pride polo) poses with a friend's family rescued on a Royal Caribbean evacuation cruise from Puerto Rico last year.

Anchored in Pride's current objectives include providing more assistance to crew members who may be returning to various "at-risk" situations when they leave the LGBT-friendly environment of the ship and return home -- where they may face discrimination and anti-LGBT violence. This is particularly true in certain countries.

That such violence can occur even a stone's throw from the sunny beaches that fuel the tourism industry was made brutally clear by the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. Speaking at a memorial event commemorating the tragedy last year, Nelson summed up why it's more important than ever for the global LGBT travel community to form a united front and the role he hopes to play in that: "Today at [Royal Caribbean], Anchored in Pride is trying to create that safe haven for everyone to be themselves, to stand together, to connect, to open their hearts, to be as one, to listen, to care, and to be proud."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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