Though most of us can’t physically travel right now, there’s still a wonderful world out there for us to explore together. Traveling In Quarantine spotlights people and places through which we can escape our sequestered realities… and in the process expand our Traveling IQ.
Traveling In Quarantine: Uwern Jong in Stockholm, Sweden
Uwern Jong is Editor-in-Chief of OutThere, a gorgeous, quarterly printed coffee-table magazine known as “the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel journal for gay men of distinction.”
Celebrating 10 years in business, it has become a go-to source for LGBTQ travelers looking for experiences beyond the mainstream. In addition to its highly curated stories, OutThere also produces LGBTQ content for tourism boards including Tel Aviv, Visit West Hollywood, Enjoy Illinois and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (where Uwern is an LGBTQ travel ambassador).
An all-around travel business badass, Uwern lends his expertise as a consultant for luxury brands including Belmond (of which he is a founding member of their landmark LGBTQ Advisory Board) and Ritz Carlton; and is serving his second term on the board of IGLTA (the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association).
He was also an LGBTQ travel ambassador for Visit Sweden and the Stockholm Visitor’s Board for many years and in 2017 developed Stockholm LGBT– a private-sector destination marketing organization and “rainbow family” of hotels, attractions, restaurants and community/business partners passionate about upholding Stockholm’s reputation as one of the world’s most LGBTQ friendly destinations.
Traveling In Quarantine interviews Uwern Jong and together we explore Stockholm:
IQ: How did you get involved in travel?
Uwern: I’ve been travelling all my life! My dad was an architect and as a family we got to travel to some amazing places together whenever he was working and I wasn’t in school. Also, he had a couple of hotel projects, so from a very young age, I had picked up an eye for hospitality. He very much wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but architecture wasn’t for me, yet I was always keen on tourism and hospitality. Time passed as it does, and after working for 10 years in integrated marketing and communications as a young entrepreneur in a creative agency, I was fortunate enough to sell my part of the business and with the proceeds take myself off travelling (this was back before being a blogger or influencer was even a thing).
I had always fancied going over to the ‘other side’ – I spent years talking to the media and pitching ideas and stories, and always thought, “I could do this.” My then partner (and now business partner) who was already working in magazine publishing presented the idea of creating a luxury travel magazine together. The idea was to turn the world of LGBT+ publishing on its head, and not just talk LGBT+ travel, but travel for LGBT+ people, we knew there was a difference, the former being all about Prides and LGBT+ culture, the latter about unique, shared cultural experiences. We sought to create a magazine that was open to all travellers, regardless of their sexual orientation, one rooted in diversity, discernment and discovery.
I toyed with the idea a little, then a ‘come to Jesus’ moment happened – actually, it was a ‘come to Buddha’ moment! I was clambering up Angkor Wat in Cambodia at dawn, in the days when you still could, keen to be the first one to get to the top to say a morning prayer. When I got there, I found I was beaten by an elderly Canadian lady, with crutches. We watched the sunrise over Siem Reap together as a monk in a saffron yellow robe blessed us and chanted. Then she leant over and confided in me that she was dying, and Cambodia was to be her last and final trip before passing. We both cried a little and spent some time together. As we parted, she told me that if I had something in my head that I wanted to do, or somewhere I wanted to go, to seize the moment and just do it, because life is short. As soon as we returned from Cambodia, we started OutThere.
What are three things you’d like readers to know about you
1. That despite what I do and how it looks on social media sometimes, I don’t take myself too seriously – I think laughter is the best human trait, so those who know me well will tell you I do it a lot.
2. I’m very proud of my heritage (you’ll find that out in the next question), sexuality and who I am in general – an out, gay, Asian man in the public eye. Diversity is wonderful.
3. My whole schtick is about bringing LGBT+ travel and LGBT+ culture into the mainstream. I don’t see our community as a niche. I see us as a major player and contributor to the world in which we live in and from a travel industry standpoint, have spent a lot of the last 10 years advocating that and getting governments, companies, organisations and travellers alike to recognize that. An all-out, flag-waving activist I’m perhaps not, but I feel that I’m doing my part this way.
Where are you from and where do you live now?
I’m proudly of Malaysian-Chinese heritage although I was born in the UK. I grew up partly in Borneo (when we weren’t travelling with Dad, that is) and Penang in Malaysia where my mother’s from and am fortunate enough to have enough of its culture, language and life-view impressed on me. When I was 13 I returned to boarding school in the UK, where I have lived ever since. London is my ‘base’, although pre-Coronavirus, I was hardly here.
Describe your featured destination—Stockholm:
So first, for transparency – I have spent a good 7 years as a travel ambassador, to Stockholm and Sweden in general. I first travelled there for OutThere and absolutely fell in love with the place. So much so, that it caught the attention of Christina Guggenberger, who then worked for Visit Stockholm … who I then worked with to continue putting the city on the map for LGBT+ travellers. Through that, I ended up working with the national tourist board, Visit Sweden in the same way. Fast forward and with changing times, I now run a LGBT+ destination marketing organization in Stockholm with Christina as my business partner, made up of some 30 hotels, attractions and restaurants who are passionate about upholding the city’s reputation as one of the world’s most LGBT+ friendly places to visit. My point is, while it looks like I have a vested interest in this destination, whatever I’m about to say about it below comes from the heart and I mean every word of it.
Stockholm is simply stunning, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s an effortlessly sophisticated place, set on the water, with beautiful people, an unparalleled approach to diversity and an ingrained, naturally hip vibe. And there’s so much more to the city that goes beyond its obvious aesthetic charm. Sure, you can take that too if you want – apartments decorated in Scandi-chic furnishings; model looking locals with perfect skin and razor sharp cheekbones dressed head to toe in HOPE (its unisex clothing brand); taking fika and eating cinnamon rolls at a bijou konditori; cycling pillion on a CityBike at midnight during the summer in the subdued rays of the never-setting sun; tumbling into a Gustavian bed with your loved one, or date for the night… the beautiful cliches could go on.
What makes Stockholm unique?
For me it’s the fact that the Swedish ideal is embodied here – people first. Perhaps it’s because of this ideal that there is a real a sense of energy, optimism and equality. It’s a place where both the feminist and queer movements are widely discussed and very vocalized subjects; where like with Robyn, music and art collide and go global; where like ACNE Studios, creativity is encouraged and rewarded; where like Spotify and Skype, what were once small enterprises can realize their dreams of becoming huge; and where people are so humanist, they’d find your concern about whether or not they’re LGBT+ friendly just utterly ridiculous. Hence, there is no gaybourhood. Many people come looking and are baffled. But in Stockholm, you can be queer everywhere, not just in a ghetto.
What makes Stockholm a place for LGBTQ travelers?
Everything I said above, at any time of year. You’ll find that Stockholm is actually the LGBT+ utopia that we have all been looking for. You have to visit to understand it. While it is my job as a marketer to talk it up and as a journalist to storytell, there is no better way to understand what exactly it is that makes it a haven for LGBT+ visitors until you go there yourself. Stockholm also has the biggest Pride festival in all of Scandinavia and has hosted Europride 3 times.
What are three spots that you love in Stockholm and why?
This is a tough one, firstly to narrow it all down, plus I can’t be seen to be playing favorites. So I’m not going to shortlist the city’s hotels, because they are all amazing (especially the ones in our network). What I love over everything in Stockholm is just how walkable it is, so it allows you to soak in its beauty and spirit while you move from place to place.
1. Mälarpaviljongen – a gorgeous, gay-owned floating bar, restaurant and social spot that’s set on a stunning lakeside. It’s the place to people-watch and the food is amazing. The owners also hire LGBT+ asylum seekers as staff while they are waiting for the decision to be made to help them integrate into Swedish life, and through the sales of a range of drinks they raise enormous amounts of money for the Rainbow Foundation which was founded at the bar – a grassroots, first-response international LGBT+ aid charity. They were the first to create LGBT+ safe houses in Chechnya and Uganda and they do some amazing work.
2. Beautiful Djurgården, once the Swedish King’s ex hunting grounds. There you’ll find the motherlode – ABBA the Museum. It’s super fun and interactive (I’ve been countless times) and a great way to get up close and personal with Sweden’s biggest export. It’s set in the Pop House complex, that has ABBA themed rooms for super-fans. Across the way is Hasselbacken, a heritage hotel that is steeped in queer history as it once played host to the city’s biggest LGBT+ night in the eighties. Then when you’re done, you can wander around in Stockholm’s green space, or kayak on the water. There are also some amazing must-dos like the Vasa Museum (the most popular attraction in all of Scandinavia. No spoilers here, so I won’t tell you the whole story – but it is an almost perfectly preserved 17th century war-ship). You can also check out a performance at Cirkus Stockholm – that often have queer programming, or head to Gröna Lund, the city’s amusement park on the water.
What are three LGBTQ highlights in Stockholm?
1. The Royal Palace for the story of the lesbian Queen Christina and alleged gay Kings Gustav III and V.
2. Secret Garden for what is a fun night out at any weekend in the city, but especially during Stockholm Pride for sure. While I’m talking Stockholm Pride, the station closest to Pride Park, Stadion has a giant rainbow mural on its walls and ceiling that is a must for Instagram.
3. Mälarpaviljongen as I’ve already touched on is a must visit for LGBT+ people, but here’s another: fans of literature (and the movies that were made from the books) can uncover the story of Lisbeth Salander from the Stig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (we found that LGBT+ travellers LOVE the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
What inspired you to develop Stockholm LGBT?
Visit Stockholm had always had an LGBT+ network, it’s always been important to them. Sadly, the organization went through a reshuffle as they do, and the project, alongside others, was disbanded. We knew and had learnt from other destinations that we had to continue being part of the global community, stopping would mean undoing decades of great and positive work, considering Stockholm always ranked so highly as a favourite for the community, despite its size compared to other destinations of choice. Stockholm’s hotels, attractions, restaurants and community wanted to continue to demonstrate how passionate they were in welcoming LGBT+ travellers, so Stockholm LGBT was reborn as a private sector initiative, funded by members. We’re proud to say though that Visit Stockholm are still involved, they are in fact our lead partner in the project today – and their whole mainstream messaging is about being an Open City, one of the only destinations in the world that uses diversity as an ongoing, mainstream marketing message.
For a city that has been known to be LGBTQ-friendly for a while, how do you see Stockholm evolving in its outreach to our travel community over the next few years?
We know we’re an LGBT+ friendly destination – always have been and hopefully always will be. Ongoing positive reinforcement is always important, regardless of how high you rank in the minds of LGBT+ travellers; there is just so much choice these days, with many more countries wising up to LGBT+ travel. But beyond that, what we try to do is look at ways of engaging the traveller more than just showing our inclusion. So for example, last year our campaign was all about LOVE, showcasing Stockholm as a romantic destination for LGBT+ couples – a place to propose, honeymoon, even get married in – but also a place to fall in love with, perhaps even in. After all, we were celebrating 10 years of unrivaled equal marriage and 75 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Sweden. It was great fun for us to use the hashtag #gaysince1944. This went to show that we’re not doing it just because of the economic benefits to the city, but that diversity has been long ingrained in the DNA.
We look to focus on other verticals too. We have also been positioning Stockholm as the destination for LGBT+ families, we’ve had numerous same-gender parent influencers and media visit us and the impact has been astounding. We’ve also been focussing on new markets because LGBT+ people aren’t just in North America and Europe, which seems to be how the world positions LGBT+ marketing. Last year at Stockholm Pride, we had journalists and influencers from China, Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand and Brazil join us.
Over the next few years we are planning to do more of the same, but continue innovating – forming partnerships with other destinations and going into harder to reach markets in Asia. We’re also planning on developing our own events – not circuit parties, or prides, or anything like that – but more inclusive cultural events that resonate with an international audience.
If Coronavirus is magically cured overnight and quarantine ends abruptly, where will you choose to celebrate?
Stockholm of course, I’m having withdrawal symptoms. But that’s really too hard a question for a travel editor to answer. I’d celebrate everywhere! It’ll be impossible to stop me. I have so many places I love that I want to return to, but also so many places on what is now an ever growing bucket list.
If you could choose anywhere in the world to Quarantine, where would it be and why?
I never thought I’d say this, but there’s no place like home. I’m enjoying being at home in London, in my house and bed, with my partner and dog. So I’m rather content right now. But if we could move my life somewhere else just for the next few months, I’d choose somewhere idyllic near a beach (and super fast WiFi). I think in Thailand.
What have you learned from this challenging period?
That travel is important in broadening horizons, the mind and positive mental health. And it is important to continue dreaming even at this time. My open letter at www.OutThere.travel/covid-19-message explains what we’re trying to do during this time. But also our #Experientialist and #KeepYourMindTravelling campaigns that you will find online will hopefully offer some inspiration. But I have also learned that we are a strong and resilient community – both the LGBT+ one and the Travel one, and that we have to look out for each other and support each other, in whatever way – now more than ever before. If this wonderful industry and sector that we know as global, diverse and inclusive tourism is to bounce back and get back on track, we need all hands on deck.
Follow the Traveling IQ (In Quarantine) series, highlighting people and places through which we can escape our sequestered realities.