Travel industry wary of new anti-gay law in Russia
The travel industry last week struggled to decide how to handle Russia?s recently enacted anti-gay law, which could potentially put clients traveling to that country at risk of arrest.
While one tour operator immediately canceled all its Russia product, citing fear for the safety of its gay clients, and demonstrators in London called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics, some leaders of gay-friendly travel groups called for a more measured response.
?It?s certainly raised concerns for me, as a travel agent specializing in gay travel,? said Tom Stephens of Santa Ana, Calif.-based Cruising With Pride. ?I have had a number of people tell me that they would definitely not be traveling to Russia because of the new anti-gay legislation and the recent rash of violence toward the gay community.?
The law, which prohibits the ?propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,? signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 29, is so broad that despite its stated purpose, it goes far beyond protecting minors. (See details, Page 36.) In fact, the law is widely seen as a government-backed attempt at aggressive suppression of homosexual behavior, gay-rights advocacy and gay rights groups.
Its vagueness is what concerns many travel professionals, especially those who routinely send clients to Russia. But while the definition of what exactly constitutes illegal behavior under the law is somewhat hazy, the penalties for violating the law are not.
Foreign visitors who are convicted of violations are subject to fines of up to $3,000, as many as 15 days in jail, deportation and denial of re-entry into Russia, according to an Associated Press report.
?How can I, in good conscience, subject my clients to this potential treatment?? wondered John Faulds, vice chair of ARTA.
According to ARTA, Russia?s new anti-gay law puts clients traveling in Russia at risk should they appear to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
The organization advised agents with clients currently booked to Russia to obtain a ?waiver of responsibility? prior to travel, releasing the sellers of any responsibility should the clients be arrested while in Russia on suspicion of being homosexual or even just pro-gay.
Backlash and boycott
The international backlash against the new law is already widespread, ranging from a call to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to at least one tour operator suspending its Russia departures.
Earlier this month, IsramWorld announced that it was suspending tours to Russia due to the anti-gay legislation, which Ady Gelber, the operator?s president and CEO, said ?could endanger or discriminate against gay travelers or travelers who exhibit a tolerance for the LGBT lifestyle.?
Passengers already booked to Russia are being given the option to proceed with the trip if they sign a waiver stating that IsramWorld is not responsible if they are arrested while in Russia on suspicion of being homosexual, lesbian or pro-gay, in violation of Russian law. They also have the option to cancel a Russian trip without penalty.
IsramWorld is not accepting any new bookings for Russia until and unless Russia ?decides it is time to cease discrimination against segments of its population and its visitors,? Gelber stated.
?As 21st century Americans, we have to take a stand against archaic prejudice and reprehensible bigotry,? Gelber said.
Cruising With Pride?s Stephens said that RSVP Vacations, a gay cruise provider, is planning a Baltic cruise in 2014 with a planned port call in St. Petersburg, Russia.
?I?ve had a number of people tell me they would not do that cruise? because of the new law, Stephens said. ?Still others have had no such hesitation and hope that the cruise will go there as planned. They would cancel the trip if Russia is taken off the itinerary.?
He noted that RSVP has not announced whether its Russia itinerary actually will remain unchanged.
?RSVP?s and all the other gay tour operators? No. 1 objective is to keep everyone safe, of course,? Stephens said. ?And if a planned stop shows signs that it may be unsafe, they won?t go there. Many gay tour companies go into countries that have anti-gay laws on their books. Unfortunately, it is still easy to hide our minority status if we have to for our own safety.?
Indeed, Russia is not the only place in the world that criminalizes homosexual behavior or sympathies. Many countries in the Middle East, throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have anti-gay laws in place.
According to a May 2013 report released by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 73 countries have anti-gay laws that impose a penalty of imprisonment, and in five countries, as well as parts of Nigeria and Somalia, anti-gay laws carry a death penalty. These include Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan.
Still, John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), said the recent anti-propaganda law in Russia came as a shock.
?You don?t think of Russia like you would other places, like central Africa where it?s been going on forever,? Tanzella said. ?Russia hasn?t really had this type of policy, so it sort of came out of nowhere.?
While Tanzella recognizes that the new law in Russia is problematic for LGBT travelers, he said he did not condone a full-fledged boycott of travel to the country.
?We have members that do business in Russia, and [a boycott] would certainly hurt them,? Tanzella said. ?There?s an LGBT community in Russia, and obviously a boycott would hurt them, as well. What we would rather do is engage leaders in Russian tourism to reconsider and help push the government to reconsider its decision.?
To that end, the IGLTA is planning to host an event in New York in October, which Tanzella described as ?a business discussion about this situation, and invite some Russian Chamber of Commerce folks and tourism folks to give their feedback on the situation to the audience.?
But Tanzella noted that if clients and travel companies begin to cancel more Russia departures due to the country?s anti-gay law, Russia could begin to feel a backlash in the form of a reduction in tourism as people seek alternative destinations that are more gay-friendly or simply because they are opposed to Russia?s human rights policies.
For now, it remains to be seen whether and to what degree the new law will affect the image of and attendance at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Russian officials, Tanzella said, ?say that the gay attendees to the Olympics and gay athletes will be safe at the Olympics. But what does that really mean when their own people aren?t safe??