In 1990, Judy Dlugacz, the founder and owner of a record label that focused on lesbian artists, who also happened to be a lesbian herself, wanted to go on a cruise. She didn’t feel she could be her true self on a regular cruise, so she sent out a missive to her sizable network. “I said, I think you may want to be out and be yourself on vacation the whole time, because I’m out my whole life, except when I’m on vacation,” she admitted. Knowing that others felt similarly, she decided to charter her very first cruise ship for gay women. She initially had trouble finding a captain willing to charter for her, until a small Greek cruise line saved the day. That February, 600 women came together for four nights in the Bahamas, and a new dream started to brew for Dlugacz.
The trip was such an enormous success that she decided to do it again, and again, and again. She founded Olivia Travel, a company that caters exclusively to LGBTQ+ women. “Olivia has always been about creating a space for women to see each other, because visibility has been the biggest problem for the women’s sector of the gay community,” says Dlugacz. “Just to see each other and to be brave enough to be out in the 1990s was a big deal for many of us.” More than 30 years later, more than 300,000 women have traveled on one of Dlugacz’s vacations.
The genesis of LGBTQ+ cruising was largely motivated by the thrills of being out, the lures of shared identity and the need for safe spaces. The earliest charters — pioneered by companies like Olivia, Atlantis and RSVP — catered to a narrow audience, and commonly advertised a party atmosphere. “The first all-gay cruises were liberating, empowering and fun, but limited to a small spectrum of people,” says Patrick Gunn, co-founder and CMO of VACAYA, an LGBTQ+ vacation company. Mainstream vacations, he notes, often offered travelers a more well-rounded experience with greater options for activities and destinations, and were accessible to a diverse set of people, but they didn’t always feel like a friendly, judgment-free environment.
The industry transformed in the years that followed. In 2017, Celebrity Cruises, which is part of the Royal Caribbean group, became the first major cruise line to conduct legal, same-sex marriages on board its fleet when a vote to recognize same-sex unions passed through the Maltese parliament (where most of Celebrity’s ships are registered). Once given the green light, Celebrity jumped in with both feet, cementing the cruise line’s status as one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly at sea.
While proud of that milestone, Celebrity acknowledges that it wasn’t the product of a grand strategy. Rather, it was a logical progression of inclusion that many lines have been working toward for decades — some more successfully than others. “It really was just a continuation of us welcoming this community,” says Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, North America, UK & APAC for Celebrity Cruises. “We do marriages on board for other folks, so why wouldn’t we do marriages for the LGBTQ community?” she says. “And it was such an honor to be the first.”
But as LGBTQ+ representation has moved into the mainstream, gay and conventional cruising have started to overlap in a more meaningful way. “There was a sense that there was a sweet spot — a great ‘in between’ — and one that offered the joy of like-minded people coming together to celebrate,” says Gunn.
At the same time, there’s some reluctance to characterize the LGBTQ+ cruiser as a wholly exceptional category of guest. Like most people who set sail, these guests also want unparalleled dining options, fun activities, tech-savvy booking options, great customer service and interesting ports of call. “We are fascinated by culture, history and cuisine,” says Gunn. “Our travel bucket lists are driven by curiosity, hope for a better tomorrow, and the belief that by understanding a place and its people, we can better share our stories and that little by little, sharing our stories can change the world.”
Ritzenthaler says that, in the early days, most LGBTQ+ guests would only cruise with companies that specialized in charters. But she found that repeat guests were often returning for non-charter voyages. “It went from a niche product with some of these charter companies, to large groups, and then to individuals who wanted to go and celebrate their honeymoon or their anniversary or take their kids with them. And so now it’s just a part of our mainstream cruising.” It’s becoming more common, she says, to have gay and straight couples sharing tables in the dining room. “I’m not trying to put labels on anyone,” she says. “I’m just trying to show how things have evolved on board.”
Things have evolved on land, too. In earlier years, there was a heavier emphasis on queer-friendly ports — and often with very good reason. In 1998, Atlantis — one of the first gay cruise charter companies — was denied permission to dock in the Cayman Islands; another ship was turned away from Turkey in 2000.
But while there are still some recurrent favorites (the Caribbean and major European cities, for example), there’s also now an emphasis on the new and novel over destinations that could be considered well-worn and proven safe. “One of VACAYA’s missions is to offer the entire community travel experiences to fresh new destinations, with customized itineraries that haven’t been offered previously by other vacation companies,” says Gunn. Ritzenthaler says that destinations for LGBTQ+ guests are really a mixed bag — as with any other client. “They choose it based on where they want to go and see in the world,” she says.
Still, for some operators, certain limitations persist. “We pick and choose the countries we go to very carefully,” says Dlugacz. Some destinations — such as Russia and several Middle Eastern countries — have been purposefully excluded based on their policies regarding gay citizens. Other countries, like China, are navigated judiciously. “We’re really careful about where we go and how we do it,” says Dlugacz. “But if we only went to gay positive places, the world would be very small.”
The LGBTQ+ community — itself highly varied and impossible to generalize — has become more inclusive over time, as forms of self-identification have also shifted. “At VACAYA, we use the shorthand LGBT+ to refer to the community we serve, but we know there are many more colors in our rainbow,” says Gunn. “All are welcome, no matter where you fall on the wide spectrum of LGBTQIAPK identities. We embrace ‘the more the merrier’ mantra and we’ll keep adding letters to our tasty alphabet soup.” In order to bolster the diversity of its guests, VACAYA is currently developing partnerships with lesbian and Black LGBTQ+ leaders and business owners.
Gunn says that part of delivering a welcoming atmosphere is understanding that every LGBTQ+ person has a different comfort level surrounding their own “outness.” “For one magical week, our community gets to be the majority and live life out loud in the blissful utopia VACAYA creates,” he says. These cruises, reassuringly safe and supportive, can have profound real-world impact on individuals who perhaps, elsewhere, struggle to connect with their authentic self.
Over the decades, the appeals of camaraderie have not diminished, and Dlugacz anticipates that even more LGBTQ+ travelers will be looking to make community connections as we move past post-pandemic life. “It’s like a spiritual awakening,” she says. “Coming on board is like coming home in a way that you never experienced anywhere else — to be the majority, with people from all over the world, where your culture is spoken to. People say, ‘What is it going to be like when everyone has their rights?’ And I say, ‘Even better.’”