To many people, San Francisco’s gay population is one of the first things that come to mind when the US city is mentioned.
But until recently its gay-friendly nature had not been promoted as part of tourism campaigns.
Local government and visitor bureaus used to be reluctant to push this side of the beautiful Californian harbour city, focusing more on icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars and Alcatraz.
But things turned more progressive after current mayor Gavin Newsom was elected in 2003.
Newsom gained national attention in the following year when he directed the San Francisco city-county clerk to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples.
The step led several other US states to change their laws concerning marriage and gay rights – and helped cement Newsom’s popularity among the gay community.
Like most of the US, San Francisco was hit hard by the downturn in tourism after the terror strikes of September 11, 2001. It was also affected by SARS and the end of the dot.com boom.
But business leaders in the gay community believed that gays would still travel – after all they were used to moving in dangerous circumstances, Peter Gerhauser, director of sales and marketing at the Renoir Hotel, said.
Some European and Canadian cities had drawn the same conclusion and were already wooing the gay market.
These businesses lobbied the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau (SFCVB) and the city to get in touch with gay tourism.
Gays were some of the first people to start travelling internationally after the terrorist strikes, explained Gerhauser, in Sydney as a member of a San Francisco delegation dubbed SF2Oz.
Moves accelerated to make tourism campaigns more gay-friendly after the appointment of Joe D’Alessandro as president and CEO of the SFCVB in July 2006, he said.
The Golden Gate Business Association, which describes itself as the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Chamber of Commerce, had produced photos of gays posing in front of iconic San Francisco sites to be used in advertising the city nationally and internationally.
These images are now being used in the first national advertising campaign for gay and lesbian travellers launched by the SFCVB in May last year.
The full-colour print campaign, which is running in six regional and national gay magazines and newspapers in the US, features a series of 10 images, shown through the viewfinders of digital cameras, showcasing the diverse activities and experiences gay and lesbian visitors can enjoy in the city.
The ads have been displayed in some Sydney bus shelters leading up to the Mardi Gras.
They prompt visitors to http://www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/gaytravel for more information and reservations.
The bureau’s gay travel microsite planning portal was designed, it says, to become the gay and lesbian community’s one-stop shop for planning their personalised holiday on its website.
The delegation of around 40 San Franciscans was in Sydney for the 30th Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and also to celebrate the 40th anniversary of San Francisco’s sister city relationship with Sydney.
For the first time, they mounted an official San Francisco float in the Mardi Gras parade.
This is surprising to some, given the long relationship between the Sydney and San Francisco gay communities.
Thirty one years ago committee members of the San Francisco Freedom Day Parade, now called the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, invited Sydney to start a parade in Australia to show solidarity with its Gay Freedom Day Parade and the international LGBT movement.
The delegation hopes to encourage more Australian gay and lesbian travellers to visit San Francisco, particularly for Pride 2008 which is held in June.
Gay tourism to Sydney’s Mardi Gras has been a niche market for many years. The US tour operator Above and Beyond organises group travel to Sydney and was designated as the official travel provider for the delegation.
Qantas, a major sponsor of the delegation, is increasing its flights to 51 per week to west coast USA by the end of March and will employ the A380 aircraft on the route.
V-Australia, part of the Virgin empire, will launch 10 flights into the US per week in November, but it hasn’t said whether they will be to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Travel packages to San Francisco, including hotel stays, can be booked through the SFCVB at http://www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com.