This article is part of a series about the changing face of Chinese tourism.
BEIJING — By virtue of his day job, Hu Boyu is a world traveler. The 30-year-old is a producer of a well-known Chinese travel program on a state satellite TV channel that has taken him to such far-flung destinations as Croatia, Canada, and Australia, where he showcases local travel spots and culture for his weekly audiences of 20 million.
But even though Hu is gay, he can’t share any insights into LGBT-friendly destinations on the program. “I wish I could show the audience the gay-related elements I’ve explored,” he tells Sixth Tone, explaining that state broadcasting rules don’t allow him to.
Instead, Hu has channeled his experience into his own travel agency aimed at the high-end LGBT travel market. Along with his business partner, a man surnamed Jin, Hu launched Cuke Travel — a reference to British LGBT television series “Cucumber” — last July.
Hu Boyu poses for a photo at a railway station during his trip to Japan, Oct. 21, 2016. Courtesy of Hu Boyu
While gay-focused travel agencies have existed in China for at least a decade, the range of services is expanding, reflecting changing demands among the country’s LGBT population. But such fragmentation also poses challenges for companies in the field, whose growth potential is curbed by persistent negative stereotypes and a continued aversion to coming out among many LGBT Chinese.
Jin declined to give his full name to Sixth Tone, citing privacy concerns. While he has told his wife about his new venture, he keeps the gay travel agency a secret from his aging parents, who live in a conservative rural village in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
With the launch of Cuke, Hu and Jin are following a path pioneered by gay travel agency Blue Ribbon. Established in 2008 and based in the southern city of Shenzhen, Blue Ribbon claims to be the first LGBT-focused travel agency in China.
Blue Ribbon’s offerings primarily feature cheap, cheerful, and gay-friendly Thailand. A typical weeklong tour to the Southeast Asian nation costs around 3,000 yuan ($460), excluding flights. A company co-founder who goes by the nickname “Tudou” says the destination is popular with gay Chinese. “In Thailand, they can get away from the stressful life in China and be themselves,” he says.
Nearly 30 percent of Chinese LGBT people traveled abroad in 2016 — about 10 percent higher than the previous year — according to a survey of around 20,000 people released by Shanghai-based nonprofit business network WorkForLGBT in cooperation with more than 20 Chinese LGBT groups and companies.
Li Xiang, a gay man from northern China’s Shanxi province, says he spends around half his income on travel — a higher proportion than his straight counterparts who face greater pressure to save for a wedding and a house, he says. (Same-sex marriage is not recognized under Chinese law.)
A pedestrian crossing signal shows a gay couple at an intersection in Munich, Germany, July 14, 2015. Joerg Koch/Getty Images/VCG
Characterizing his home province as conservative and underdeveloped, Li says he feels pressure to carefully monitor his behavior at the state-owned company where he works for fear of encountering professional discrimination.
Li traveled to Bangkok and Pattaya with Blue Ribbon in 2015. Such trips offer him a sense of liberation that he says is hard to come by at home. “In a group where everyone is gay, I feel safe and relaxed,” he tells Sixth Tone. “We slept in during the morning, visited tourist spots in the afternoon, and lingered at one gay bar after another in the evening,” he recalls.
Li says he’s attracted to destinations with thriving LGBT scenes. He travels domestically at least once a month and internationally twice a year, and says he expects to experience the local LGBT community and gay nightlife wherever he goes.
In San Francisco, Li booked an apartment via Airbnb in The Castro — the colorful neighborhood known as the city’s LGBT enclave. “When I found the intersection of Liberty and Castro [streets], I realized the meaning of travel,” he says.
But not everyone is looking for Thailand tours; some Chinese gay men, like 23-year-old Wang Jiayu, associate such destinations with lowbrow, hedonistic partying that could even pose health risks in an age where HIV infection rates remain high. “If it’s just bars and sex, what’s the point of travel?” the Beijing native asks.
Wang says he wants something different on his vacations, such as the chance to mingle with locals and exchange ideas with LGBT organizers overseas. “I want to feel respect and acceptance in a foreign country,” he says.
Enter Hu and Jin’s travel company, Cuke, with its emphasis on experiences and exclusivity. The pair selected Spain as their launch destination: In addition to hitting the usual tourist spots, the company’s 10-day Spanish itinerary lets travelers enjoy an electronic music party in Ibiza, sail on a private yacht, and stay at LGBT hotels in Madrid and Barcelona. Cuke also arranges meals at gay-friendly fine-dining restaurants. The company even contracts a local Spanish tour guide who’s gay and speaks fluent Chinese. The travel package costs more than 30,000 yuan.
Some question the need for LGBT-focused travel agencies. Da Cheng, a young engineer working in Beijing, says he’s not interested in agencies like Cuke. “I’ve fully accepted who I am, and I don’t particularly look for LGBT organizations when I travel just because I’m gay,” says the 24-year-old. “It’s just like a female traveler doesn’t necessarily want to visit a feminist center in a foreign country.”
A man looks at an ad for Cuke Travel on his mobile phone in Shanghai, Sept. 25, 2017. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
Hu and Jin believe the potential for LGBT tourism is vast. “Currently, we don’t have any competitors with the same philosophy in China,” Jin says. Yet their prospective customer base could be limited. “LGBT [individuals] are already a small group, and our target — well-off LGBT people who also value spiritual experiences — is even smaller,” says Hu.
Despite the current lack of rivals, there’s no guarantee that Cuke will remain unchallenged by other LGBT companies looking to enter or expand to the premium market. Though it previously targeted the low-end market, Blue Ribbon in August launched a mid-range tour to Japan costing around 9,000 yuan. Tudou calls the response thus far “surprisingly good,” as the company has already filled three Japan trips in less than a month. The company predicts that about 40 percent of past customers can afford a tour like this. “The success of the Japan trip gives us confidence in promoting premium tours to Europe and Australia next year,” Tudou says.
For now, Hu and Jin both maintain full-time jobs and manage the travel company in their spare time. Hu focuses on developing proposals and liaising with potential partner companies. With a decade of experience in international travel, Jin is responsible for cultivating ties with gay-friendly car rental companies, restaurants, and hotels in China and abroad.
“We want to offer travel services for LGBT people that are spiritually enriching rather than just satisfying sexual desires,” Hu says.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to nonprofit business network WorkForLGBT as Beijing-based; the network is based in Shanghai.
Editor: Colum Murphy.
(Header image: Portra ehf/E+/VCG)