NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When Thomas Roth first visited India, he was often asked about his wife and children -- questions he would try to evade.
That was thirty years ago, when homosexuality was a criminal offence in India and for many the term “gay” only meant “happy.”
Roth is again planning a trip to India, this time with his partner, and hopes the visit will coincide with the annual Queer Pride parade in New Delhi.
“(Earlier) like most gays in India at that time, I was basically invisible,” said Roth, who runs a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community market research firm in San Francisco.
“Now, with emerging Gay Pride events, film festivals, parties, etc. gay visitors can have it all,” he added, in an email interview.
Since homosexuality was decriminalized in India in 2009, an increasing number of LGBT tourists are viewing India as a holiday destination.
A survey conducted by Roth’s firm in the United States last year ranked India as the second most desired cultural or adventure destination, just behind Thailand.
Changing mindsets have created business possibilities for travel operators, who are now portraying India as an emerging gay-friendly destination.
Four years ago, there wasn’t a single gay tourism company in India. The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) now lists seven gay-friendly or exclusively LGBT travel agents in India.
“Word about India has travelled far and wide through the Internet,” said Sanjay Malhotra, owner of Indjapink, which calls itself India’s first gay travel boutique. He started with 20 clients but now has more than 100.
“Five years ago, the gay community had so many apprehensions travelling to India,” he added. “Now, they look at the option of travelling to India without acting heterosexual.”
Tours cover everything from honeymoon packages and candle-lit dinners to wildlife safaris and spiritual retreats. An opportunity to interact with the local gay community is the icing on the cake.
Malhotra has even conducted weddings with traditional Hindu rites for two couples.
Not that it is impossible for LGBT tourists to experience India without a travel agent. When economist Qing Wu visited North India with his partner, he said he “never felt uncomfortable” as a couple.
“In India, it is fairly common to see boys holding hands,” said Wu, who lives in San Francisco, via email. “I personally feel pretty safe.”
The special packages provided by LGBT tour companies in India also ensure clients can be completely uninhibited during their visit. The entire staff, if not gay, is gay-friendly.
“It is my duty that no taxi driver or guide says anything offensive,” said Abhinav Goel, owner of Out Journeys in New Delhi.
Typically, these packages are mid-range to luxury and most of the clientele comes from the United States and Australia. A majority of these agencies still cater to men, though the survey by Roth’s firm showed India was the most desired destination among lesbians in North America.
“We cannot truly call ourselves LGBT till we do something about the ‘L’ part of it,” said Goel, who is planning on starting a group package for lesbians.
India is still way behind places such as Hong Kong and Thailand, which have openly gay communities and gay-friendly infrastructure.
Operators say it would be hard for India to compete with these destinations without visible government support.
“They just have to make the statement that Incredible India supports gay travelers,” said Goel. “That small and simple statement could really open the doors.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Elaine Lies