“When we first started in the industry, they didn't want to charter to us. And now we're one of the largest charters in the world,” says the founder of Olivia Travel.
“I've spent my life doing this work. And it's not because I wanted to be a great businesswoman, it's because I wanted to change the world for women. And this is my vehicle: music and travel.”
71-year-old Judy Dlugacz is the founder of Olivia. Set up in 1973, Olivia Records was a group of ‘radical lesbian feminists’ who were trying to platform women in the male-dominated music industry.
15 years later, Judy saw a gap in the market and transformed her company into Olivia Travel, the first lesbian travel company, in 1990.
What’s followed has been over 30 years of adventure, friendship, love and freedom.
Euronews Travel sat down with Judy to learn more.
Inside the first lesbian travel company
“I had started this women's record company and so I was out of the closet my entire adult life,” Judy explains.
“But when I went with my partner on vacation, we were in an environment where we were the only ones and it felt insecure.”
It was this realisation that made Judy realise that there was a need to create an all-female LGBTQ+ space in the travel sector. Because is it really a holiday if you feel like you have to hide part of yourself?
So in 1989 Judy sent a letter to the mailing list of her record label offering a 4-day cruise to the Bahamas with space for 600 women.
So many people wanted to sign up that she had to add an extra trip. That’s when she knew she was onto something.
“It became quite a spiritual experience because women were able to be free, to be themselves, really for many, for the very first time.”
Creating a world as it should be
Judy speaks so passionately and proudly about Olivia Travel, everything it's achieved and the environment they have created.
“It's remarkable what happens onboard. People become lifelong friends. Many women who are single meet the love of their lives. Things like that do happen all the time.”
All women and trans people are welcome on Olivia trips, regardless of sexual orientation.
“But we also created that environment where you're not ‘other’. Everyone is friends. Even if you're strangers, you feel a connection,” says Judy.
She talks about the importance of having a space for women to be together. But also that it’s just incredibly fun.
“By the time you leave, there's something different. You feel stronger. You feel more connected to people in so many ways.”
“And it's the happiest place on earth. I know they sometimes say Disney is, but no, Olivia is.”
It hasn’t always been easy running a lesbian travel group though.
“When we first started in the industry, they didn't want to charter to us. And now we're one of the largest charters in the world,” Judy tells Euronews Travel.
Over the years Judy worked closely with cruise companies to improve conditions, whose previous homophobic attitudes had isolated even their own staff.
And it wasn’t just the tourism industry, many destinations were not always welcoming to Olivia travellers either.
Judy describes facing an anti-LGBT protest fuelled by comments from local bishops whilst on a cruise to the Bahamas.
The government promised that they'd protect the pier in Nassau so Judy and her team decided the women would dock and then immediately board a smaller ship and visit a private island.
“I went into town to see what was going on, and there was a pretty big demonstration.
“And I asked to speak to the head of the demonstration and I said, ‘we're just here as good citizens wanting to go on vacation’ and they said, 'well, you're going to rot in hell',” Judy continues.
As she headed back to the boat, she realised there was no protection, as had been promised, at the pier.
“So they just came on the pier and…so I called ahead to the ship and said, ‘They're coming on the pier, close up the hatch’.”
Though some of the travellers had already left, many women were still onboard, watching as protestors screamed abuse.
“Suddenly the people who are protesting start to sing these beautiful five part harmonies of hymns. And little did they know that the women on board also knew the hymns.
“So the women sang them back to the demonstrators. And suddenly all of that anger and energy dissipated and they stopped singing and they walked off the pier and that was it.”
A week later, the Prime Minister, after talks with Judy, appeared on television to declare that gay people are welcome in the Bahamas, issuing a public apology.
What holidays does Olivia offer?
The travel company’s holidays attract a whole range of ages - from late twenties right up to people in their 90s.
“It's a wonderful thing because you don't often have that kind of connection to different times and different generations,” Judy says.
“Particularly in the experience of this community, which really just started developing in the seventies and has seen such incredible change and wonderful development for itself today.”
Whether you’re looking for an adventure or a relaxing beach break, there’s something for everyone. With its roots in music, Olivia Travels’ trips are still connected with high-class entertainment, offering a range of music and comedy acts for example.
But the key element is that, for every one of their trips, they privately charter the whole resort, boat or hotel.
In the past, they’ve even had trips to Russia, China and Kenya. Popular options now include the Greek Islands - one of Judy’s personal favourites - Tahiti, the Galapagos Islands and ice hiking in Alaska.
One of their new offerings is smaller, adventure trips across the US.
“The United States is this extraordinary country. So everyone wants to come and do hiking and biking and see the parks,” Judy adds.
Watch the video above to learn more about Olivia Travel.