St. Petersburg is vying to be gay tourism capital of Florida

The Welcome Center now has a retail boutique that features local gay artists and businesses. (SARA DINATALE | TIMES)
The Welcome Center now has a retail boutique that features local gay artists and businesses. (SARA DINATALE | TIMES)
Published Oct. 19, 2018

Move over Fort Lauderdale. St. Petersburg is on a mission to become Florida's gay tourism capital.

Monthly reports and surveys by Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater show the Sunshine City could already be on its way: 4.1 percent of respondents in the May 2018 profile identified as LGBTQ, meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning. That may seem like a small percentage, but it equals roughly 18,000 visitors.

Those numbers aren't being ignored — by the city nor by outside businesses looking to serve that segment of the market.

"You're starting to hear people say, 'Oh, have you been to St. Pete yet?'" said Robert Geller, who's the marketing director of a new LGBTQ travel site launching in Tampa Bay. "It's a place of such discovery."

At the start of the month, St. Petersburg's LGBTQ Welcome Center reopened with a new tourism component to guide gay and queer visitors. At the same time, Geller and a team of New York-based developers are planning to use Tampa Bay as the launch place for a website that allows users to easily find LGBTQ-friendly Airbnb and room listings.

Geller, who lives in Tampa, said St. Pete's high-ranking beaches and its massive Pride celebration drew the website — his company is still keeping the name under wraps — to pick Tampa Bay as its launch location.

St. Pete Pride is the largest such event in the southeast — organizers said this year's late June festival drew 200,000 people. Still, Fort Lauderdale, Key West and Miami have long been known as Florida's main gay travel destinations.

Some local tourism experts say that's poised to change.

Related coverage: At St. Pete Pride, attendees find community, acceptance

This year marked the first time Pinellas County's Tourism Development Council considered St. Pete Pride as an "elite status" event, which means its recognized officially as a major tourism draw, according to Visit St. Pete-Clearwater CEO David Downing.

"St. Petersburg is definitely becoming a LGBTQ destination," said Jim Nixon, who runs the LGBTQ Welcome Center. "Our city is becoming known for being progressive and inclusive."

Nixon also works as the LGBTQ liaison for Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has advocated for LGBTQ rights and supported the parade since taking office in 2014. Monday through Friday, you'll find Nixon in the back office of the revamped Welcome Center with its freshly painted rainbow exterior on Central Avenue in Historic Kenwood.

The center opened in 2014 as a safe haven for gay and trans community members, especially youths. The relaunched house still offers the same social programming, but also an added focus on promoting tourism and local gay businesses.

A Visit St. Pete-Clearwater kiosk sits next to a giant booth of Tampa Bay travel brochures. In the next room is a boutique that sells locally crafted postcards, paintings by gay artist John Gascot, Pride T-shirts and other decor, apparel and accessories.

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Related coverage: What Red Tide? New Florida tourism campaigns promote museums, craft beer and local experiences

A new ice cream stand and Kahwa Coffee in the back encourage newcomers to kick back and learn about the area, whether you're visiting, relocating or need support, Nixon said.

Nixon said he's also working to get more local hotels to become "TAG" certified, which is a formal recognition that a hotel welcomes LGBTQ travelers. That way, he can feature them at the LGBTQ center and its website to easily point visitors to the spots they'd like best.

That's similar to what Geller and his team are trying to do with their platform, which will list LGBTQ friendly rentals from the major room sharing apps. To be a member, listers will have to pay a small fee and watch educational videos about the LGBTQ community, how to treat guests and about pronouns used by the non-gender-binary and transgender community.

Geller, who has lived in Tampa Bay since the 1980s, said visitors don't want to feel like they need to come out again to strangers while trying to relax and enjoy a vacation. They want to come where they're welcome, he said, and that's something Tampa Bay fosters. He hopes the site can launch in time Tampa's Pride celebration in Ybor this March.

"I feel so strong about it launching in Tampa Bay," Geller said. "It's like this hidden gem that (LGBTQ) people in Boston don't really know about yet, people in New York don't know about yet."

But it looks like the secret is getting out.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.