DOWN A SIDE STREET off Lan Kwai Fong, travel agent Graham Elsom is offering packages that give a whole new meaning to the term 'special'. The name of the agency is rather unfortunate, Concorde Travel, but unlike the ill-fated supersonic jet that has been grounded, this Concorde is hoping to take off, selling gay tours. Want to go to the Sydney Mardi Gras? Elsom can guarantee grandstand tickets for the gay and lesbian parade. A cabin for two on an all-gay cruise in the Caribbean? No worries, says the Australian. And just in case potential customers are nervous about coming out of the closet to discuss their travel needs, Elsom is helping to smooth the way by employing gay consultants. There are several among his 27 staff at the eighth-floor On Lan Street office. Concorde Travel is no newcomer to the package scene. Elsom has been selling quality tours and tailor-made holidays for 'straight' customers since he launched the business in Hong Kong 23 years ago. But the region's economic collapse in 1998 spelled disaster for the travel industry, and a cut-price package war saw many go out of business. It still hurts, but Elsom believes gay package deals could fill up the coffers again - if Hong Kong Chinese can throw off the shackles of a culture still immersed in conservatism. Pink dollar tourism is earning millions in the West and Australia. Cruise lines, airlines, guide book companies and even Walt Disney are cashing in by catering for the massive gay and lesbian market. 'There are literally thousands of travel agents in Hong Kong and it is very tough going because the margins on air tickets and tours are small,' says Elsom. 'Gay tourism is an area I would like to develop in Hong Kong. In Europe, the US and Australia, business is huge in this field. There is a large gay community in Hong Kong, but though things are changing and we have a lot more gay clubs and bars, and even a gay radio station, the old taboos still remain. 'We have gay staff and our whole staff is gay-friendly, but as far as Chinese are concerned there is still a lot of reluctance to make bookings through an agent face to face. Many are frightened of being identified as being gay.' Elsom believes agents who operate Web sites are doing good business in the SAR, for Chinese gays are able to book their holidays on the Net and pay by credit card without any verbal or visual contact with the agent. Nevertheless, Elsom is managing to sell gay packages, especially the Sydney Mardi Gras, which attracts gay visitors from as far as Amsterdam and San Francisco. 'I fixed up a package to the Mardi Gras for a Chinese gay couple who went travelling around the country for a couple of weeks in homestays. Australia is actively promoting the Pink market.' Next month, gay festivals lasting several days are planned for Bangkok and Phuket. Elsom says he can provide air ticket and three nights accommodation for the Bangkok festival at around only $3,500. He agrees that air tickets to Thailand and accommodation in Bangkok are so cheap right now that even this low price could be bettered if an individual is prepared to put the effort in to make his own arrangements. But Elsom has the contacts. He knows gay-friendly tour operators in Thailand who can help Pink travellers find bars and restaurants frequented by other gays. Go to Sydney and try to pick up tickets for grandstand seats for the Mardi Gras, and you'll almost certainly be out of luck, he says. They are snapped up like gold nuggets. But again, he has the contacts and can provide tickets before his clients leave Hong Kong. Those contacts have been made by being involved in the travel industry for nearly four decades. Elsom had worked for travel agencies in Australia for around 14 years before the Dutch firm which then employed him opened an office in Hong Kong and sent him here to manage it. Soon after, the head office told him the company was folding. 'I was stranded here, but I loved Hong Kong so much I decided to open my own business here,' he says. He built up a business offering leisure travel to destinations worldwide, in an era when gay holidays were virtually unknown and homosexuality between consenting adults in private was illegal in Hong Kong. When you consider that this law, which carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, was only repealed nine years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that local gays still keep a low profile. The subject is still taboo in Chinese society. The Australian Tourist Commission (ATC) at Central Plaza in Wan Chai has a multicoloured folder among the shelves in its reception area which are full of pamphlets and brochures promoting the country. It has been slotted in between two others, Self-Drive Holidays and Backpackers Oz. Absolutely Pink Australia is packed with contact addresses for gay tour operators and gay-friendly accommodation Down Under. It is popular with gweilos, but Chinese are very shy about browsing through it. Zoe Lo, the ATC's marketing manager for Hong Kong and Macau, says the subject of gay travel among Chinese is so taboo that she has not been asked any questions by locals. Down at the Tourism Authority of Thailand office in Admiralty, Keith Wong, the marketing manager, looks shocked when I ask if he has any information on the gay festival that is coming up in Thailand next month. Though anything goes in Thailand, it is not with official blessing. I'm up against the Asian wall of conservatism again. 'We aren't open on this like Australia,' says Wong, who has been marketing manager in Hong Kong for nine years. No, he hasn't even heard about a gay festival. Yes, it can be tough going in Hong Kong. Last year, Ansett launched a Rainbow Club for gays, offering various perks such as seating in the upper deck of 747s, priority check-in and extra luggage allowances. This year Ansett was taken over by Air New Zealand and you won't find the Rainbow Club on its Web site. There are rumours that the Rainbow Club may be abandoned soon, possibly to be merged with the airline's frequent-flyer programme, and that some passengers have objected to gays being given special privileges. Meanwhile, Elsom is looking forward to the Sydney Mardi Gras in February. He expects to build up a bigger gay clientele by then. And on the horizon are the Gay Olympics. They will be held in Sydney in 2002, when, he hopes, the pink flame may burn brightly for the SAR travel industry.