A monthly column about gay and lesbian travel

The Pioneer of Gay Travel

by Sasha Alyson

Hanns Ebensten thought a rafting trip on the Grand Canyon would be more fun with a gay group. He was right -- and he hasn't looked back.

Among the most popular destinations for gay travel pioneer Hanns Ebensten (above) is Machu Picchu.



The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.


Also of interest:

All about
Gay Adventure Travel




Table of Contents of Venturing Out columns

What are the traits of a happy traveler?

Resilience, stamina, patience, a high threshold for enduring discomforts, and above all, an ability to make the most of adverse situations. That's the view of Hanns Ebensten, who then quotes Seneca for a final requirement: "He that would make his travels delightful, must first make himself delightful."

As for unhappy travelers: Ebensten finds they're the ones primarily interested in the shortcomings of their hotel, always worried that someone is trying to cheat or impose upon them, and unable to adapt to unfamiliar conditions.

  • If anyone would know, it's Hanns Ebensten. Since 1950 he has worked in the travel business, with all its varied demands:
  • He prepared a New Yorker ad in Latin, for a resort owner on Mustique who wanted to be sure of attracting only nice Americans.
  • He produced dinner for twelve on a remote mountain, when planned supplies had failed to arrive.
  • In Russia, he declined the repeated propositions of a handsome Russian who knew all sorts of obscure facts about Ebensten. A KGB agent, seeking a contact in Key West? Even today, Ebensten isn't sure.

* * *

There was no such thing as gay travel when Hanns Ebensten entered the business. At first, he worked for a mainsteam agency with mainstream clients.

A Grand Canyon adventure found him escorting a pastor with his two prim sisters, "an old doddering alcoholic hoping to relive the days of his youth," and a divorcee whose eight-year-old daughter, amidst the splendor of the canyon, cared only to know, "When are we stopping for lunch?"

The canyon was sublime; the company was not. The experience set Ebensten thinking: Wouldn't this be more fun with a gay group? When he started his own travel agency a few years later, a top priority was to offer some gay trips. It was "pure joy," he recalls, to travel through the Canyon again, but with gay men

* * *

The waters of the Grand Canyon were well charted when Ebensten took his gay group along them. The waters of gay travel were not. As the first travel professional to offer gay vacations, Ebensten relied on trial and error to discover the best approach to this new niche.

Concerned that his gay trips might not fill up, he invited one or two models from Colt Studios to accompany certain departures. Two models he remembers fondly: Val Martinelli, a good-natured Brazilian whose knowledge of tropical plants was a big plus on an Caribbean sojourn; and mischievous Richard Trask, whose biggest plus became evident on the frequent occasions that he shed his clothes.

But for the most part, Ebensten found the young models added less to the trip than he had expected. Other guests were equally muscular and good-looking -- and were paying their own way. He ended the Colt gimmick; guests signed up anyway.

Emboldened by these early successes, Ebensten dreamed bigger: A cruise to the Galapagos Islands with 65 gay men. He advised the cruise ship owner, a Mr. Proano, of the group's nature: "Tell the crew to be prepared to see some of the men holding hands". Mr. Proano was aghast (this was Quito, Ecuador, in 1975), but went ahead.

As the cruise ended, Ebensten felt it had been a smashing success. Yes, the scents of marijuana and amyl nitrite had been more in evidence than on his other trips, and some crewmembers might have been disturbed to see two men dancing or kissing. But overall, he concluded, any observer would have to agree that a gay cruise was little different from any other.

Thus he was shocked to hear from Mr. Proano a few weeks later: No gay group would ever charter his ship again.

On reflection, "I realized that he was right," wrote Ebensten a decade later. "Twelve, eighteen, even twenty-four people, who have the desire to see the same places at the same time, can be brought together and with adroit leadership formed into a journeying group of friends, considerate travel companions, a family party. A larger group remains a vulgar crowd, an unwieldy horde, a common herd."

Some travelers would agree. Another tour operator might present the "vulgar crowd" as a top selling point. But anyone who has traveled in both groups of 15 and 50 gay men will agree that the group dynamics change greatly. Ebensten has continuously added new destinations and adventures, but he has never again traveled with a group larger than two dozen clients.

* * *

Many of Ebensten's adventures are recounted in his book Volleyball with the Cuna Indians.

Hanns Ebensten Travel will run its twenty-first Grand Canyon Expedition this summer, beginning June 26, as well as trips to the Galapagos (maximum 24 passengers!) and other destinations. For information, call at (305) 294-8174. And any tour operator who doesn't have an 800 number is either old-fashioned, quite successful, or both. Which do you think this one is?

February, 1998

* * *

Next Month: Mice, Music, and Mr. Leather.

Postscript, June 2002: After nearly 30 years in the business, Hanns Ebensten recently sold his company, but still makes occasional appearances on trips. The new owner, Philip Sheldon, has retained certain of the founder's old-fashioned virtues, but not all of them. Hanns Ebensten Travel now has a toll-free number: 866-294-8174; and a website: www.HEtravel.com.