Buenos Aires: South America’s New Gay Mecca

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) – Gay tango classes and same-sex unions may not be mentioned in every guidebook, but

such attractions are turning Buenos Aires into a new South American mecca for gay travelers.

By Louise Egan The Buenos Aires city government proudly touts the metropolis as «South

America’s most important destination for gay travelers» on its Web site.

The claim does not seem far-fetched to anyone who has strolled through

the trendy district of Palermo or done the gay circuit of restaurants and

tango bars in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo.

Plus, the city legalized same-sex unions in 2003, becoming the first South

American city to do so. Carlos Melia, owner of Pride Travel, which serves

some 30 gay clients a month, said they are increasingly opting for the

more refined and discreet Buenos Aires over Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, who-

se beaches and party atmosphere have made it a traditional gay hangout.

There are seven tourist agencies and hotels in Buenos Aires that cater

exclusively to gays and dozens who bill themselves as «gay friendly»

in their brochures and Web sites. Real estate agent Iuri Irastzoff says he

now sells 10 properties a year to foreign gay buyers thanks to a «guer-

rilla marketing strategy» targeting them. Peru, Ecuador and Uruguay

are also arousing the interest of gay and lesbian travelers — or G&L

tourists, as they are called in the industry — as South America slowly

sheds its macho mentality to accept sexual diversity. «These are emer-

ging countries for the G and L market. The people are joining the social

revolution, they are recognizing same-sex unions to varying degrees

and Argentina has always been at the forefront of that,» Mitchell said.

A port city of 3 million people, Buenos Aires has never had trouble luring

tourists with its European-style elegance, historic neighborhoods and re-

putation for beautiful people. But more and more of its visitors are gay,

mostly men, who through word of mouth or advertising hear about the

city’s vibrant circuit where «out» men and women are an accepted part

of urban life.

Martin Oortwyn, a 50 year old in the software business, landed in the

city in mid-February from the Netherlands. «I went to some gay bars yes-

terday. It is like wherever in Europe. It could be Amsterdam, London, it

could be Madrid. Very fashionable,» he said. As Argentina recovers from

an economic crisis and the leisure industry revives, Buenos Aires is culti-

vating its image as a Latin American rebel that embraces the social values

of Europe more than macho culture and Roman Catholic doctrine.

Last year, the number of tourists in Buenos Aires surged 38 percent as Eu-

ropeans and North Americans took advantage of a favorable exchange rate

that makes everything from barbecues to operas at the grandiose Teatro

Colon dirt cheap. Morals aside, gay and lesbian tourism is also very lu-

crative. Argentina wants to grab a bigger slice of the estimated $94 billion

in annual revenue the niche market generates worldwide, according to the

International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, IGLTA.

That’s why the group chose Buenos Aires as the site for its annual sym-

posium in late February where it coached 109 tour operators from 10

countries on how to get in on this booming new business.

«It’s an extremely large and profitable niche market that brings in travel re-

ceipts in excess of $55 billion out of America only, with research producing

a figure of around $94 billion worldwide,» said Robert Wilson, executive

director of IGLTA. There are no official statistics on gay and lesbian tra-

velers to Buenos Aires, but tourism officials estimate that one in five of the

5.25 million visitors last year was gay. They are a high-end segment becau-

se they usually have no children and therefore spend more on themselves.