Civil union bill may offer LGBT edge

Wat Arun is seen at dusk on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. (Reuters photo)

Thailand is advancing same-sex partnership legislation. And one of the nation's biggest industries, tourism, is paying close attention.

Amid an election campaign, a measure that would give gay and lesbian couples more rights -- yet doesn't legalise same-sex marriage -- was approved by the cabinet and was headed to parliament. Though the session ended before the bill became law, the tourism industry is using the occasion to actively promote Thailand as an LGBT-friendly destination.

"Thailand already has products and offerings catering to this market, and now our focus will be how we can better serve them," Srisuda Wanapinyosak, a deputy governor for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said in an interview.

This year the TAT will host an LGBT travel symposium and plans more participation in pride parades in such cities as New York and Tel Aviv. Last month, it released a promotional video featuring LGBT travellers, including well-known lesbian bloggers Roxanne Weijer and Maartje Hensen. At a Madrid tourism event in January, the industry had a booth for the first time promoting Thailand specifically to gay and lesbian travellers.

The country's tourism industry represents about one-fifth of the economy and is growing at a faster pace than other sectors. The LGBT market has become key to the industry's fortunes.

According to the investment firm LGBT Capital, tourism revenue from that community contributes 1.15% to Thailand's economy, a greater share than any other destination.

Although Thailand is one of Asia's most significant LGBT destinations, it's still legally and in some respects culturally behind other countries like the US, Spain and the UK, which received more revenue than Thailand from LGBT visitors.

Civil unions

The proposed civil union law stops short of allowing same-sex couples to marry. It would grant such partners legal rights to jointly manage assets and liabilities and to give or receive inheritances. Activists have criticised the measure for not giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, though proponents hail the bill as a first step towards equality in Thailand.

Although the bill has not become law, the government is expected to revisit the measure after the election. The future parliament may update it with more rights granted to address concerns raised earlier.

The measure would represent an advancement for LGBT rights in Asia. Vietnam and Taiwan have taken some steps towards recognising same-sex unions in recent years, with the latter drafting a bill to legalise same-sex marriage that could go into effect this year.

In recent years Thailand has become known for its welcoming attitude towards LGBT visitors, although the local gay and lesbian community complains they face some barriers in employment outside of entertainment and service industries.

Bangkok was ranked Asia's best city for LGBT visitors, ahead of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to apartment rental site Nestpick.

Foreign visitors generated $63 billion for the Thai economy last year. According to LGBT Capital, revenue from the LGBT inbound tourism market is estimated to be $5.3 billion, which accounts for 8.4% of the tourism industry.

The Tourism and Sports Ministry expects more than 41 million tourists this year, generating nearly $70 billion.

Tourism boost

Several studies have shown people in the LGBT community have higher disposable income than the general population and tend to travel internationally. LGBT visitors could boost Thai tourism revenue at a time when tourism from some European and Middle Eastern countries has slowed.

Robert Sharp, founder of Out Adventures, a Toronto-based travel company focusing on the gay community, has sent thousands of American and Canadian travellers to Thailand over the past decade.

He said the majority of his clients take at least three international trips annually, and some only consider destinations that are welcoming to the LGBT community.

"I think Thailand sees this segment as an opportunity to promote the country, and this bill will only help that initiative," said Mr Sharp. "Thailand could really be an example that there's a fiscal benefit to recognising the community, and other countries could learn from it."

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