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Leon Kaye headshot

Want to Revive Sustainable Tourism? Film and Stream More LGBTQ Romance Series, 'Thai BL' Style

By Leon Kaye
Thai BL

Many of us are still swooning over Heartstopper, three-plus months after Netflix released it this past spring. However, many in the LGBTQ community are now also furious that Netflix announced last week it is canceling the supernatural drama First Kill after only one season. Could it be because it centers around an interracial lesbian love story? We’ll never know, and —pardon the pun — we’ll never get a straight answer from Netflix. So, while LGBTQ content keeps improving, there still appears to be an unwritten rule that the main characters need to be light-skinned, wear a white dress shirt and tie, and attend an elite prep school or university. To that end, that’s where Thai BL (often referred to as “Y series” as well) waltzes in, literally — and it’s not a just a thing, it’s a phenomenon. 

What are so many of us cray over Thai BL?

Thai BL — i.e., boy love — is a genre of entertainment that has been the biggest hit across much of Asia since Korean dramas. And, sorry Heartstopper fans, but the boy-meets-boy story sans dystopian drama has been around for a while: Thai BL's popularity has been increasing for almost a decade, in fact. Like Heartstopper, this genre’s roots are in print and web comics dating as far back as subtexts in 1970s Japanese manga (specifically, yaoi).

For years, Thai BL stories were largely underground; until the early years of this century, such content was actually imported from Japan rather than produced domestically. Then the series 2gether snowballed in popularity during the early months of the global pandemic, and virtual tours of the various locations where the series was shot soon followed after. 

One cannot typecast Thai BL stories as simply homoeroticism or gay love stories. Just as the case with Heartstopper’s creator, Alice Osman, many of these boy love stories are authored by women — though in the case of these love stories, many of these women authors are actually writing for women. Think of them as same-sex romance stories, often with ridiculously hilarious plot twists and far too many awkward moments. Yet women are often an afterthought in Thai BL series, as on many occasions the female characters in these series are often distracted and are clueless about their gay peers as they are frequently obsessed with watching BL stories on their iPads. As the editor and writer Cameron Scheetz of Queerty sums up:

“The guys are cute, the stories are sweet and breezy, the music is upbeat, and they’re largely optimistic, free of anything too traumatic (seriously, it’s almost as if homophobia doesn’t exist in a great many of these shows). At a time when the general state of things *motions wildly* feels grim, it’s not hard to understand why people are gravitating towards BL shows.”

Not 100 percent authentic, but Thai BL series are still a welcome break

To be clear, Thai BL isn’t exactly a true representation of the LGBTQ experience in Thailand. The country’s LGBTQ rights record is mixed: not outright terribly oppressive, but the general public’s attitudes — as well as the laws on the books — evoke mere tolerance, not complete equality and acceptance, and gay marriage is almost, but not yet, legal. Further, we’ve still got the problem of most BL characters being fair-skinned and enrolled in elite schools. Nevertheless, at a time when many LGBTQ people feel like it’s the 1980s all over again with the response to the monkeypox outbreak, Thai BL series can offer an escape and respite, because let’s face it: Many in the LGBTQ community appreciate seeing queer people portrayed as protagonists instead of punchlines.

For LGBTQ fans of Thai BL, the way in which these series is delivered offers indulgence with a side of discretion. Among the streaming services, Japanese-owned Line TV has exploded in popularity with its platform, which many fans choose to watch on their phones. The result, explained the Guardian's Rebecca Ratcliffe, is that these series don’t compete with conventional soap operas on Thailand’s television networks while largely going unnoticed by the more conservative elements of society within Thailand and other countries.

In addition, Thai BL is doing more than challenging the entertainment industry. It could inspire a new genre of travel as well.

Book yourself that Thai BL tour, folks

About Thai BL tourism: It’s already happening, and not just virtual tours like the ones focused on locations seen in 2gether. Take the epic 2020 series, I Told Sunset About You, along with its follow-up drama, I Promised You the Moon. Count in one small business that’s already cashing in: a café in Phuket that sees one particular table booked solid far in advance, as it’s where the two leads in both series often sat and experienced their romance bloom. “They scream so much that I would like to call an ambulance,” quipped the restaurant’s owner during a recent interview with Ratcliffe of the Guardian.

Judging by the success that two video distributors had after setting up booths at a recent Thailand-themed festival in Osaka, Japan, enthusiasm will keep growing and could help revive the tourism sector in the country which is still lagging due to the lingering effects of the pandemic. Representatives of the country’s tourism ministry were reportedly at the festival as well, passing out pamphlets on Thai BL. Similar exhibitions have been held in Tokyo and other cities across Japan in recent months, as the Japanese tend to be the most devoted fans of Thai BL. But as the genre’s popularity expands, more opportunities to welcome tourists from other nations will emerge as well. 

Thailand has long been visited for its beaches in the south and cultural riches in the north, along with a dicey side, as in Patpong, the infamous Bangkok neighborhood. But Thai BL fans who are visiting the country can bring with them a new dynamic, similar to how Iceland and Croatia (Game of Thrones) and Crema, Italy (Call Me By Your Name, before Armie Hammer creeped out and even horrified his fan base) saw new influxes of tourists. 

These fans would also engender niche of tourism that would be far more responsible and sustainable. We’re not talking about the types of visitors that would overrun historical ecologically fragile destinations, nor are we discussing backpackers on Khao San Road polishing off cans of Singha beer — after all, these traveling fans have their sights set on the neighborhoods, cafes, restaurants and buildings where the most epic Thai BL series were shot on location. Therein lies a boost for many small businesses, such as the one in Phuket with the popular corner table — travelers always need to eat, rehydrate and, sure, occasionally shop. With close to 20 new Thai BL series produced this year alone, the results could benefit the struggling Thai tourism sector while allowing a more localized form of travel to thrive.

The popularity of LGBTQ-themed shows such as Heartstopper, Young Royals and, yes, Thai BL series shows that there’s a craving for compelling and entertaining content — and the next country full of creative types who can capitalize and produce such content might just witness a wave of visitors who wish to see where further acceptance of their community was filmed.

Image credit: Honey Fangs via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye