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'Gay Paree' Takes On New Meaning

Paris tourism officials want to give new meaning to the term "Gay Paree."

The French capital has always wooed visitors with its reputation for fine dining and high fashion, and Paris continually cashes in on its mystique as the land of love and romance.

Now, City Hall has a new strategy: selling Paris as a leading destination for gay travelers.

At the mayor's office and the tourism bureau, which has funded a press junket this week for journalists from American gay publications, officials call it the next frontier of tourism.

"We want to create a gay friendly spirit across the whole city," said Laurent Queige, one of the project's organizers at City Hall. "It's an entire marketing campaign devoted to gay tourism: promotions, brochures, media trips, Web sites, tour packages."

Officials in Paris say they are encouraged by a trend toward greater tolerance but are still battling conservatism and homophobia.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, when elected last year became the city's first openly gay mayor and proudly led this summer's Gay Pride parade. Delanoe couldn't attend a meeting last month to inaugurate the gay-friendly tourism campaign because he was recuperating from a stabbing attack by a man who said he disliked homosexuals.

The overall challenge for officials working on the campaign is to tweak the image of a city famous for photographs like the 1950 Robert Doisneau snapshot of a man and woman stealing a kiss incidentally in front of City Hall.

Wheels have only begun turning on the project, which is not to be publicly launched until June 2003. After convening a meeting of experts on gay tourism last month at City Hall for an initial brainstorming session, a marketing blitz was born.

Travel agents that cater to gay clients are planning package tours to coincide with summer festivals like Gay Pride parade, which last June drew a record half-million people. Ideas also include discount tours geared to the nightclub scene and other Paris in-spots.

Paris is paying special attention to the American gay community. An outdated guide called Gay Friendly France is being revamped for circulation at French tourism offices in the United States as of June 2003. The Maison de la France in Los Angeles is working with American tour operators and helped organize this week's fully paid trip to France for gay media on the theme of gay tourism.

Paris is hardly the first European capital to target the gay tourist. Berlin, London and Lisbon among others have geared marketing toward gay and lesbian visitors, particularly in the United States, for years.

"We're not doing it discreetly," said Natascha Kompatzki, a spokeswoman for Berlin's tourist office, adding that gays are "an important group" for the German capital. Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is openly gay and marched in Berlin's Gay Pride parade this year.

London and Berlin, like Paris, have prominent gay districts, which are featured on their tourism Web sites along with listings for gay-friendly hotels and restaurants.

But those cities have a natural advantage, said Remi Calmon, a spokesman for France's 600-member National Union of Gay Businesses.

"`The French are not always -- how shall I say this -- the nicest people," said Calmon, whose group is part of Paris' gay-friendly planning committee. "It's one thing to bring tourists here, but when they arrive you can't take an attitude with them."

Details of how to make Paris more people-friendly were still being worked out, he said.

One idea that has sparked great interest was dreamed up in the small Loire Valley city of Le Mans, best known for its 24-hour auto race.

On its own mission to attract gay tourism, Le Mans City Hall has drafted a "Lesbian and Gay Friendly Welcome Charter," which they mailed to local merchants this fall.

Membership is optional, and so far 37 establishments have signed up, including restaurants, bars, travel agencies, a body piercer and all the city's hotels.

Signatories paste rainbow-colored stickers in their windows with the message "Welcome to Mans" and a smiley face to let customers know they are gay friendly.

Supporters say the rainbow smiley face sends a message of tolerance. But others questioned the tactic as being perhaps a little too politically correct.

"A welcome sign for homosexuals?" said Tony Guimier, whose menswear shop in the city's historic center opted not to adopt the charter. "Do they also want me to put up a sign saying I accept Arabs, Blacks and Jews?"

By Jocelyn Gecker

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