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This gay globetrotter’s been to Cuba, Russia and is considering Iran – his story will surprise you

This gay globetrotter’s been to Cuba, Russia and is considering Iran – his story will surprise you

Intrepid traveler Simon Clifford has been to five continents

Sponsored: The world’s a big place – and yet, a lot of it can feel off limits for some LGBTI travelers. But not for travel-obsessed Simon Clifford.

The 34-year-old, who works for Exodus Travels, has racked up visits to a staggering 53 countries through work and personal travel. That’s over a quarter of the Earth.

‘My passion comes from not traveling as a child,’ he laughs. ‘We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and I was one of five. Our idea of a holiday was walking five minutes to the beach. Me and my brother got the travel bug because we never left the hills of Torquay!’

As the Product Manager for adventure holiday experts Exodus – which offers tailor-made group trips as well as trips with a set departure date – Simon has also been to several countries not typically considered ‘gay’ destinations.

These include Armenia, Russia, Cuba and Sri Lanka. And while he knows they won’t be for all LGBTI travelers, he loved them.

He even took his partner Ed along to Cuba and Uzbekistan.

‘I’m packing him off on his first Exodus group trip without me to Colombia cycling in April’ he tells us. ‘He’s a stronger cyclist than me, so I said “Why not do one of our really tough cycling trips?”’

Simon’s been to countries that are considered LGBTI-unfriendly. Morocco, for instance, which criminalizes homosexuality and where there has been a spate of arrests in recent years.

‘I wasn’t traveling with Ed on that trip,’ he explains. ‘We don’t share a surname so if we were seen on the manifest as two, we’d be given a twin room. I would never say “Oh no, we want a double” – I wouldn’t make a scene like that.

‘I’m respectful of other cultures and understand that demanding a double bed isn’t going to change society.’ He adds: ‘In Sri Lanka, technically it’s illegal because they’ve never changed the law from British rule. But no one’s ever been prosecuted for being a gay man. I don’t mind going to countries like that. I think it broadens the mind.’

Here, Simon discusses his life in travel, from Azerbaijan to Austria, before sharing six destinations he’s visited with Exodus that he’s loved…

How long have you worked in the travel industry?

For 14 years. I did a geography degree, went on to do cabin crew, then went traveling for a year to Australia and Japan, then came back to the UK and worked in travel sales for a couple of years. Then I joined Exodus as a Product Manager in 2013.

How often do you travel?

Every two to three months. I get a little bit itchy if I don’t! I’m going skiing in Austria this month.

What are your other travel plans for 2017?

I’m doing our new Russia: Last Journey of the Tsars, traveling from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, on our first departure in June. It’s in an observer role making sure everything runs the Exodus way, as we say. I also check out the hotels we’re using, and make sure the itinerary runs smoothly. For my own holiday Ed and I will be doing a road trip in Italy with the bikes!

What’s top of your travel bucket list?

This Russia trip is pretty high up there. Possibly Canada, I have a friend in Calgary and want to go for the annual stampede – one of the world’s biggest cowboy festivals.

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

I’ll arrive and look at the sales from the previous day. A big part of my role is capacity management – seeing how sales effect forward bookings on my trips. Then I deal with feedback from clients, looking for any issues that needs to be addressed, plus anything that’s really good. I’ll often pass that on to local operators saying: ‘They’ve really praised the leader – can you make sure this is shown to them?’

At the moment it is the quieter time for the Product Team. We have to have trips ready to sell during the busy January period. In the coming months we’ll look at setting dates for 2018, writing content for the website and trip notes and sourcing imagery. At this time we also look at new trips, identifying regions and countries that are becoming popular, and sourcing local operators and hotels.

What destinations are on the rise?

I’m wanting to set up a new trip in Norway. Dog-sledding, snowmobiling, reindeer safaris, Northern Lights, different activities every day.

Also, I’m heading out to Sweden next month with the tourist board, as we’re looking to do a new week-long husky trip.

Iran is going to be a big seller for us. We’ve just launched a new trip there. It’s seen as an area of growth, as well as central Asia, Costa Rica and Colombia.

Would you go to Iran?

Yes, but there’s a line for me, and Iran is a hard one. I know I’d love it and find it a fascinating country to visit from a historical and cultural perspective. I know I could travel there on my own or with a group and be absolutely fine. Even if I traveled with Ed we’d have a twin room.

It wouldn’t occur to people we were a couple. But in countries like Iran, where there is such strong persecution and harsh punishment for the LGBTI community, I do struggle.

Six destinations Simon’s visited with Exodus

1 Uzbekistan 

If Uzbekistan was in Europe or Southeast Asia, it would be packed with tourists. But it’s empty! There’s the odd little Exodus-style group, but on the whole there aren’t many tourists there. Which is amazing when you consider all the amazing mosques and madrasas, and the history of the ancient Silk Road across central Asia, once home to Marco Polo and Genghis Khan.

It’s had a turbulent history, but it’s fascinating. It’s been wonderfully restored, with great markets, lovely, friendly people and amazing food – plus, it’s cheap. OK, you’re not going to go gay clubbing there, but you wouldn’t go to Uzbekistan for that kind of trip anyway. Ed came with me on that trip, we shared a room every night. No one even batted an eyelid. Homosexuality isn’t in the mainstream, it’s off people’s radars completely.

We talked openly as a couple with the Exodus group we were with. But I don’t think the leader ever picked up on it. It was perfectly safe – it’s tried-and-tested by a gay couple. In one of the hotels we had a double room and there was a little single bed in the corner; a family room. We slept in the double, but didn’t think “Oh, we better mess the sheets up on the single.”‘ It’s fine.

2 Norway

It’s right on our doorstep and absolutely stunning. I’ve done cross-country skiing and several hiking trips. It’s clean, efficient, everything works, beautiful scenery – it’s one of these countries where I say, yes it’s expensive, but it’s good value. You’re getting good quality hotels, all the buses and ferries run on time, it just works and the scenery is out of this world.

Then of course it’s liberal, tolerant and they’re beautiful, lovely people. It probably is my favourite country in the world. A day cross-country skiing, means packing your lunch for the day and putting on your backpack, then heading out on your skis into the forest for the day – there’s something quite special about that, it’s just so relaxing. There’s something about being completely away with nature that you don’t get with downhill skiing.

#Russia, is such an amazing place, I just wish we could all lean to love each other! #Moscow #stbasils #rayban

A post shared by Simon Clifford (@sdclifford) on

3 Russia

I’ve been to Russia twice, and I’m going for a third time later this year. I have a love/hate relationship with Russia. I don’t like what happens there. We obviously have a freer press than Russia, but I think Western media does portray Russia as this awful place where every gay guy who goes on Grindr is beaten up. It’s kind of not like that. There are friendly, open and tolerant people in Russia. Many of whom hate Putin.

But I haven’t experienced the gay scene in Russia because I don’t have gay friends there, I wouldn’t risk meeting a stranger and going to a gay bar. If I was there with an Exodus group and had a free evening, I wouldn’t do that, whereas Norway, I might consider it. You have to be more cautious.

However what I love about Russia is that turbulent, fascinating history. Everything from the Tsars, to the revolution through to Communism and Putin’s modern Russia. The Russian people are highly cultured, they love the opera, the ballet, music, theater, the arts. That, in Russia, is incredible. There’s also so much iconic architecture. Going to the Red Square is like seeing the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben for the first time. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Russia beyond Moscow on our trip – getting on the Trans-Siberian and traveling going across this vast, mysterious country.

Slovenia

It was lovely. I was on a hiking trip in the Julian Alps. It’s quite easy walking and we had another gay guy on that trip, traveling with his female schoolfriend.

It’s one of those countries that’s really coming out of its shell, people are becoming more familiar with it. It may not be as dramatic as Switzerland but it’s lovely for mountain walking. Lake Bled is that typical fairytale setting, with the church on the island surrounded by mountains. While Ljubljana is a really buzzing capital city, and it’s so clean and tidy everywhere. On the whole it’s gay-friendly and cheap!

5 Morocco 

I am the Product Manager for Morocco, and last year completed the summit of Mt. Toubkal. I completely agree with Exodus customer James Silverstone (who we interviewed about his experience here) that it was absolutely fine as a gay traveler.

A good friend of mine is a gay guy living in Morocco, working for a local operator. I met him while traveling in Australia. For a lot of people there, especially men, it’s not something that even occurs to them, it doesn’t register. There are gay men living in Marrakesh. They’re not openly gay. It’s underground – there aren’t any gay bars. Also there’s a big expat community in Marrakech: a lot of French and Belgians. That’s the scene my friend is in and he find it all very friendly and welcoming, but it is quite hard to find in the first place.

6 Cuba

An amazing island nation, perfect for cycling, which is what we did, you always get a better feel for a country when you’re on a bike. Again, it’s not illegal to be gay in Cuba. And in central Havana, people are more tolerant, like in any capital. But I think it’s still a bit underground so you’ve got to be careful.

Saying that, it’s beautiful country, changing really fast. It’s somewhere people really need to go see before it opens up and becomes a really big tourist destination. And don’t do an all-inclusive! That was our mistake. We did a couple of days at the end of the trip in one thinking it would be really nice, but we were bored! There’s so much culture, history, great bars and amazing nightlife – just stay in Havana!

For general information, visit exodus.co.uk.

Gay Star News encourages anyone considering a trip to a country where homosexuality is illegal to do their research and exercise caution. Remember the local LGBTI population doesn’t have the chance to come and go like you can, so try to support them when you can. You may want to consider donations to LGBTI organizations in the country you visit. Exodus Travels customers are also welcome to contact Simon or a member of the Exodus team to discuss any travel concerns.