Charles Lapointe was just 17 years old when he stepped into his first gay bar, La Rose Rouge, in Montreal back in 1961.
“There were no gay bars in my hometown of Tadoussac, and I didn’t think there were any gay bars, so this was a very big discovery for me. I wanted to meet other gay men, and I discovered a vibrant gay scene in Montreal,” says Lapointe, the president and CEO of Tourisme Montreal, which put Montreal on the international gay map when he spearheaded a trailblazing gay ad campaign in 1994.
Today, Montreal is widely hailed as a pioneer in the multi-billion-dollar world of gay tourism. New York, London and Tel Aviv have all copied Tourisme Montreal’s gay-tourism template.
“Montreal is one of the best examples of how to do it right,” says Jeff Guaracino, author of Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide for Marketing. “The city wasn’t on the gay tourist map, but Lapointe and his team identified it as a coming destination. They did it right – conventions, the Outgames. They really created [gay] Montreal, and now travellers think, ‘I must go there.’ That didn’t happen overnight.”
“He’s a pioneer,” Guaracino says of Lapointe, who was hired by Tourisme Montreal in 1989 after a 10-year career as a federal Liberal MP and Trudeau cabinet minister. “I was Canada’s first minister of tourism in 1980; Trudeau was not an old colleague or friend, but I was a disciple. I was very young when I became a minister, and my sexuality was never an issue in cabinet. My being openly gay was normal and only became an issue during the 1984 campaign when I lost my seat [when the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives swept Quebec].”
Once at Tourisme Montreal, Lapointe commissioned Thomas Roth, president of San Francisco-based Community Marketing (Tourisme Montreal was his first client) to do a study “about the reputation of Montreal among LGBT people in the United States. For three years I got to know the [local] players, [like Montreal’s Divers/Cité Festival and the BBCM Foundation’s Black & Blue Festival], then we based our  campaign on the study. We were ahead of the parade.”
Now, after 24 years at the helm of Tourisme Montreal, 68-year-old Lapointe – whom many would like to see run for mayor of Montreal (“but I am too old”) – is stepping down this summer. This past May he received the Hanns Ebensten Hall of Fame Award at the 30th annual International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association convention in Chicago.
Lapointe will stay on as a consultant through 2014 to mentor his successor. He also ranks Montreal as North America’s number-three gay-tourism destination, behind San Francisco and New York City.
“Montreal is now a ‘mature’ destination, like Canada is,” Lapointe explains. “We are no longer the taste of the day. We have a very good repeat clientele, but they are also a bit older. So [over the past four years] we switched our strategy, with our international Queer of the Year Contest, to appeal to a younger clientele, and we’re making headway there. We also have a new [Montreal] TV show coming out on Logo TV in 2014. So we’re still trying very hard to be the most original.”
Tourisme Montreal also recently launched its new Do Your Thing in MTL video campaign, featuring Jonny “Gay Pimp” McGovern, lesbian comedian DeAnne Smith, Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, trans drag performer Carmen Carrera, and Montreal drag legend Mado Lamotte [disclosure: this reporter conducted the campaign’s video interviews].
Meanwhile, Tourism Toronto is hosting some 30 journalists from the international gay press on a week-long trip during Toronto Pride this summer that will also visit Niagara and Ottawa.
“Toronto is behind Montreal [for gay tourism], but with WorldPride in 2014 they will definitely pass Montreal,” Lapointe says. “We are already in discussions with Toronto Pride to propose trips to [Montreal] for the thousands and thousands of visitors in Toronto during World Pride.”
As for gay tourism helping to change the world one destination at a time?
Lapointe sighs. “Well, I don’t think it will change anything in countries like Russia. But it can in countries that support gay civil rights. Since I first came to Montreal, it has been wonderful to see the city, Quebec and Canada grow up and embrace gay life.”