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China's first ever LGBT travel agency

Founder Ricky Wang on catering to China's newly-emerging queer demographic

Time Out talk to Ricky Wang, the man behind GLOWtravel, about the rewards and risks of catering to China's newly emerging queer demographic

So, how did GLOWtravel get started?

I was born and raised in Beijing, and after graduation I worked here as an accountant. I came out to my parents four years ago. They are very supportive and I feel like one of the more blessed [gay people] in China. At the time, I didn’t like my job at all, so I took an MBA in Beijing and Paris, and when I got back I started GLOWtravel right away.

All by yourself?

With my [straight] business partner, who’s also my best friend. We’ve known each other for 15 years. He’s in charge of handling other travel agencies, logistics and other practical stuff.

Does he find it challenging, serving an all-gay client base?

He doesn’t see GLOWtravel as anything but an ordinary business. But sometimes, when he’s been working the hotline, a caller has asked him straight away: ‘So, are you gay?’ When he replies that he isn’t, it seems that their level of trust suddenly drops. That happens a lot.

Was there an experience you had as a tourist that inspired you to establish a travel agency specifically serving an LGBT clientele?

I was on a tour of South Korea with my ex-boyfriend. There were a lot of old ladies on the tour who kept asking us what our ‘relationship’ was. We had to pretend we were cousins. That gave me the idea for organising all-gay group trips. I want to help other people experience how open other countries can be, to help them feel good about themselves. Bali, Thailand, South Korea – that’s just the start. I want to take people to Barcelona, to San Francisco, to LA.

Are you mainly focusing on Asia-based travel at the moment?

It’s not necessarily the most gay-friendly of regions. Yes, there are some risks, but we’re not going to Singapore to get spanked! [Singapore retains antigay statutes that mandate corporal punishment for offenders.] We are also currently avoiding destinations in mainland China, because we don’t want to get too involved with local tourism. Maybe Taipei. We also want to do more events-based tours – Songkran, for example. I really want to do something for Sydney Mardi Gras, or Pride Barcelona. I also want to introduce Chinese people to gay cruises, especially in the US.

Is your focus on group tours?

That was the idea to start with, but actually there are lots of gay people who want to travel independently, so we’ve started to offer bespoke travel services. It’s funny, I thought I knew the customer, because I’m gay. Now I don’t really feel I understand the customer at all! A lot of people are nothing like me, and it’s these people whose needs I have to understand. I just came back from Bangkok. A lot of people – especially 50-plus gay guys, often married with kids – want to go there for sex. That’s something I didn’t expect!

You didn’t think people went to Bangkok for sex?

I mean as the main focus of a trip. Just like shopping at outlet stores, or cosmetic surgery – there are all kinds of reasons Chinese people travel. I only used to think about the ‘fun’ part – river rafting, cooking classes and other interesting activities, but there are other needs that LGBT travellers need fulfilled. That’s what I’ve been learning.

Would you want to get involved in those areas? Sex tourism and the like?

Not sex tourism, no. We won’t take customers to these places, but we can help them in terms of general information. There is only a certain number of gay people, it’s a very niche market, and we can’t choose who we want to serve. But in the learning process I’ve got to know so many different people. For example, Bali has a clothing-optional gay resort, called Spartacus. I met the owners, an Australian couple, and they’re really friendly. It was such an honour to get to know about them and their story – we shared a lot.

Right now your company seems mainly focused on gay men. Do you want to offer services to more female customers?

I really, really do. I’m so keen to attract bi and lesbian travellers, but I feel that to do that, I need a lesbian partner. None of our current staff understand that particular market. We do have girls who come along on our tours, it’s just a holiday, after all. The only people we’re not really catering to are straight customers.

There’s demand for gay package holidays from straight people?

Oh, yes! A lot are straight allies, who are very supportive, but we have to protect the privacy of our customers. That’s my top priority.

GLOWtravel organises tours and individual packages from around 8,000RMB to destinations across Asia and the Pacific. For more details, go to glowtravel.com.cn.

Jack Smith