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Chapel Hill welcomes gay visitors — why doesn't Charlotte?

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Chapel Hill rolled out the rainbow carpet last week for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Fam Tour — a symposium designed to educate travel professionals about potential destinations for LGBT tourists. Chapel Hill and Orange County plan to tap into the reported $60 billion those gay and lesbian travelers spend across the nation on vacations and travel.

"National and international travel associations have gotten much more organized in terms of providing the research of how the gay travel market is one of the few sectors that's growing, even in the economic bleak times," said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau. "The gay travel market doesn't look for traditional travel spots like Key West and cruise lines, but it really looks for gay welcoming, inteligencia, respect for individuals and gorgeous towns."

With N.C. Pride going on next door to Chapel Hill last week in Durham, hosting the Fam Tour was a natural fit. The town became the first in the state to host the symposium.

Chapel Hill is in year three of its plan to draw more gay and lesbian travelers into the area, but Charlotte is just getting started researching the gay and lesbian travel market.

You'd think North Carolina's largest city and county would already have a foothold in this niche market, but Charlotte isn't on the map for many in the LGBT travel community.

David Paisley, senior project manager of Community Marketing Research Inc., a gay and lesbian travel research organization based in San Francisco, said Charlotte doesn't rank.

"In the national gay and lesbian community, Charlotte really isn't on the radar," he said. "From the West Coast perspective, when we look at North Carolina as a whole, certainly the Research Triangle area has some connection with the gay and lesbian community."

According to Molly Hedrick, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the city hasn't formulated any concrete strategies for attracting the gay travel market, but that may change in the future.

"Historically and up until now we haven't had a plan for that market as a niche market," Hedrick said. "It's been a market that has been growing over the last couple of years, and we do have our eye on it now."

While the city doesn't have a gay travel agenda, Hedrick points to Gay Bingo, a gay and lesbian chorus convention in 2000, and the National Association of Catholic Diocese Lesbian and Gay Ministers in 2001 as examples of Charlotte-hosted LGBT events. She also says that CRVA is making some efforts to reach gay travelers online.

"What we're doing also is through a partnership with Travelocity and through their gay and lesbian travel services," Hedrick said. "We reference that Web site for people who are looking for travel assistance in that area."

Charlotte is more known for its financial reputation than a destination for gay travelers, but Paisley said, if marketed right, that could change and bring more tourists and more dollars to the Queen City.

"Part of it is becoming involved in all of these structures out there that promote travel to the gay and lesbian community," said Paisley. "It helps a lot for places that want to be perceived as more progressive to include the gay and lesbian community in your outreach mix. It's not the only thing you're going to put in that mix; Charlotte can't survive on gay and lesbian tourism [alone]."

Although Charlotte is looking, the Triangle is cementing its position as a leading destination for gay travelers.

"You do have three cities, [in the Triangle area] there that are all active in the gay and lesbian market and they've been able to make a presence in the market," Paisley said.

Paolicelli said that Chapel Hill has community support to bring gay and lesbian visitors and gay-themed conferences to town.

"Chapel Hill has always taken a leadership role on progressive ideas," she said. "I would think that positioning Chapel Hill as a gay destination is a progressive idea and one that we can stand behind." Gay shop owners and politicians were in front of the conference attendees last week, telling them what Chapel Hill has to offer. The Orange County Board of Commissioners, according to Paolicelli, has an openly gay member -- a win that probably wouldn't happen in Mecklenburg County where Bill James looms over the board with open disdain for gays.

But Chapel Hill has always had quite a liberal reputation.

Paolicelli said that back in the day when the General Assembly debated funding the North Carolina Zoo, the late ultra-conservative Jesse Helms said to just put a "fence" around Chapel Hill.

Arriving in Chapel Hill, visitors find out that this place is more than just the home of The University of North Carolina, but a progressive city where openly gay politicians serve the community.

Mayor Kevin Foy told the IGLTA group, "Chapel Hill has a long history of respect for individuals."

Mayoral candidate Mark Kleinschmidt, who is currently a town council member and openly gay, said Chapel Hill and Orange County has "magic" to offer.

"It's a great place to call home," Kleinschmidt said, "and great place to visit."

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