Gay Cruise Ship Docks at Asia's ports

On Tuesday the Azamara Quest, a 30,777 tonne luxury cruise liner is due to arrive in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor at almost exactly the same time the USS Blue Ridge, the US Navy's Seventh Fleet command and control ship, sails out carrying 1,000 sailors.

The Azamara Quest set sail on March 19 from Shanghai on an 11-day journey that the organizer, a Californian based gay and lesbian tour operator, claims is the first gay cruise in history to set sail from China. The passengers have been ferried in comfort and opulence to Korea, Japan and Taiwan, ending up in Hong Kong on March 30.

The Azamara Quest's cruise has whipped some of the Asian media – those who have heard of it -- into a frenzy. Asian values often include homophobia, sometimes blatant, more often quite subtle. According to one writer, "Asian gays have to negotiate their freedom, lifestyle and identities in an atmosphere of heterosexism, and not the endemic violent homophobia prevalent in many Western countries." Many Eastern societies accept homosexual lifestyles as long as the individuals work to be discreet. China itself is slowly coming around. It wasn't until 2001 that the Chinese Psychological deleted homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

The ship arrived Sunday in Keelung, Taiwan's second largest seaport, which couldn't be called 'picturesque' in anybody's travel guide book, to a considerably warmer welcome. Usually the only colors seen are in the rainbow-like reflections of the diesel spills floating in the port's water. Nonetheless, the Keelung port suddenly became uncharacteristically merry as a group of almost 400 American gays walked down the gangplank. And Taiwan put on its best manners to welcome them.

On Sunday afternoon the hundreds of visitors were scheduled as a group to visit the places foreign tourists to Taipei usually see. There was the National Palace Museum, which harbors the Chinese Emperors' collection of art, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and of course Taipei's landmark, the Taipei 101 skyscraper. The program for Sunday night however was left blank, but to individually plan those hours, the 'special' maps earlier received at Keelung port came in handy.

There are places like the Café Dalida which advertises its 'real' foreign friendly reception; there's Fresh, the most popular gay club in town which also emphasizes that English is spoken. Yet most of Taipei's gay and lesbian bars are found in a cluster around the Red Theatre Plaza in the crowded Ximen district. "Many rainbow flags will clearly show you the way," read the brochures given to the Azamara Quest passengers.

"Several members of the gay group told me that they were not treated with tolerance elsewhere on this trip," said Chou Yi-hua, director of Keelung port's Tourist Service Center without elaborating. "We aim at allowing the visitors to experience Taiwan's diversity and tolerance."

Having set foot on Taiwanese soil, the gay men in their early 30s, most of them from New York and San Francisco, were greeted with a Taiwanese dance troupe and senior citizens who work at the port as volunteers. Piles of 'special' maps and guide brochures were handed out to find Taipei's bars, nightclubs and restaurants that are popular with the local gay scene.

Not surprisingly, the arrival of the Love Boat, as the Korean media inevitably dubbed the ship as it passed through, was much anticipated by Taiwanese gay groups. "The arrival of the Azamara Quest is good news for Taiwan's gay rights campaign", said Lu Hsin-chieh, spokeswoman of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association prior to the ship's docking at Keelung port. "In recent years, Taiwan's gays have gradually become more visible to society."

The term Tongzhi the group carries in its name means 'comrade' to mainland Chinese, but in Taiwan, it is commonly used to refer to gays and lesbians.

Taiwan sexologist and writer Hsu You-sheng explained in an interview the impression the docking of the Azamara Quest is likely to make on the Taiwanese society: "Most of these homosexuals come in couples. That shows that homosexuals are not sex perverts but are people who can form steady relationships."

By most Asian standards, Taiwan has liberal policies towards the lesbian and gay communities. Polls showed that in the eyes of 75 percent of the Taiwanese public homosexual relations were acceptable. The Taiwan Pride gay parade is annually held in Taipei, and last year 25,000 took part, making it the largest such gathering in Asia. Another sign of Taiwan's social progressivism is that in 2003 the government planned to introduce same-sex marriage. However, the proposals never became law, and Taiwan's gay rights activists still continue their fight for equal rights.

Although the Azamara Quest's guests may be plying unfamiliar waters, all-gay cruises have been around in the west for at least 25 years and they are hugely popular. The Atlantis cruise line appears to be sailing into lucrative waters with them. Cruising With Pride, which offers all gay cruises, adventure tours, all-gay tours and lesbian cruises and tours and books Atlantis cruises, says on its website that "all-gay cruises are chartered exclusively for gay & lesbian singles and couples. Many gay travelers prefer this type of vacation. Our own world for a week or two. What could be better?" Indeed, the cruises, just like the ones for the blue-haired set, cater to the needs of the passengers, with gay and lesbian comedians, singers and cabaret performers according to the website instead of superannuated performers.

The Azamara Quest's voyage is just one of five that Atlantis has cris-crossing the globe between now and October. The Shanghai-to-Shanghai cruise also visited Busan in South Korea, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kagoshima in Japan and Taipei before landing in Hong Kong on March 30. Then the Azamara Quest takes off again from Hong Kong to three cities in Vietnam and two in Thailand before landing in Singapore on April 9. The 684-passenger ship is sold out, with North Americans making up 80 to 90 percent of the passengers, according to Fridae, an Asian gay website, which said the cruise appears to be the first solely gay cruise organized in Asia.

How the passengers themselves evaluated their East Asia experience they paid from US$2000 for an interior cabin room to US$7000 for a penthouse for becomes apparent on web sites that are forum for cruise critique. Steve of Washington DC wrote: "My first gay cruise was such an amazing experience, I'm not sure if anything could ever top that." According to Tom from Florida, you don't actually have to be gay to enjoy a trip like this. He wrote: "If the destinations are the primary goal, then a gay cruise environment becomes secondary."

A post on an English-language Korean site, however, makes apparent that not everybody in Asia welcomes gay and lesbian travelers. An anonymous writer leaves a comment that sends a chill up the spine. The post reads: "A ship full of gays in a Korean port? Such a great opportunity for North Korean subs to finally show their military might!"