As I start my 21st year as the owner of HE Travel, I would like to pay homage to our heritage. A look back at the history of HE Travel must start with Hanns Ebensten, who founded Hanns Ebensten Travel and ran the first gay tour in 1973, down the Grand Canyon.
Hanns was a man for whom “home” was nowhere and everywhere.
After fleeing Nazi Germany with his parents, he lived in South Africa, London, New York City, and finally in Key West, Florida. Hanns occasionally traveled with his engineer father to faraway locations, such as Easter Island where 9-year-old Hanns played with a local boy named Juan Edmunds.
His father was Jewish, his stepmother was Christian, and Hanns nominally identified as a Christian. However, he found his richest spiritual moments among the Moai of Easter Island, the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and at the Khan Al-Khalili Mosque in the heart of Cairo where everyone was welcome provided they entered in a spirit of peace and contemplation.
In 1996, I attended the International Tour Management Institute (ITMI) in San Francisco, then moved from New Jersey to Key West, Florida. The next year I saw an ad for Hanns’ company in The Advocate, a national gay magazine, and saw that he was also based in Key West. I visited his office, and after telling him how much I enjoyed living in China and leading tours there, he asked me to lead his 1999 China tour.
Hanns had a very particular style for leading tours, so before the China tour, he invited me to join him in Egypt for Thanksgiving, 1998. Since Hanns had been leading tours since the 1950s, when he led cruises for British Lords and Ladies and their friends, I learned a great deal from him. Being a recent ITMI graduate, I also noticed some areas where I felt we could improve tour logistics. I discreetly made a couple of suggestions, which Hanns graciously accepted.
He also demonstrated the ideal demeanor for a tour director when I showed intense frustration over a lost sweatshirt while jetlagged from flying from Shanghai to Los Angeles to New York to Cairo. He invited me to sit with him away from the group to watch the grand Sound & Light Show that illuminates the Pyramids and the Sphinx. He listened to my concerns, calmed me down, and was delighted when I found my sweatshirt in my room and showed it off to the group at dinner with a sheepish smile.
As a boy, he fled with his parents from 1930s Germany to South Africa where his Jewish engineer father opened a mine. As a young man, he emigrated to London, where his command of multiple languages and impeccable dress and manners secured him work on cruises with lords and ladies and their friends.
In 1960, Hanns visited London’s Hyde Park, a spot where gay men knew they could discreetly meet other like-minded men. A handsome young Australian in a leather jacket named Brian Kenny invited Hanns to ride off on his motorcycle together … starting a 41-year relationship that lasted until Brian’s passing the afternoon of 9/11.
In the early 1960s, Lars Eric Lindblad invited Hanns to move to New York to help launch tours under a new concept of “adventure travel”. Hanns accepted the invitation, but only if Brian could join him in New York. Mr. Lindblad agreed, and Hanns and Brian were among the first “domestic partners” whose relationship was recognized by a corporation.
Working with Lindblad, in 1967 Hanns created the first tours to the Galapagos Islands and to Easter Island, where prominent guests such as the actress Yvette Mimieux and the artist Georgia O’Keefe slept in sleeping bags in tents. Hanns developed these tours with the same Juan Edmunds with whom he had played as a boy. Juan’s son and his wife continue to host our HE Travel visitors to Easter Island.
In 1972, Hanns started his own company, offering archeological and historical tours. The following year, he and Brian led the first “gay men’s tour” down the Grand Canyon. He arranged this with the owner of Grand Canyon Expeditions, which remains our Grand Canyon partner to this day.
Over the following decades, Hanns and Brian moved their office from New York to Key West and maintained a carefully curated roster of about 10 tours a year. Hanns himself led 3-4 trips a year, especially enjoying annual visits to Peru, the Amazon, Easter Island, and Egypt. Hanns also hired knowledgeable gay men to lead his other tours. One of his favorite tour directors was a handsome Iowa college graduate named Cal Culver, who owned one of Key West’s first gay guesthouses. (Cal was better known to gay men of the day as Casey Donovan, star of several gay porn films, but was always handsomely dressed while on tour.)
Hanns and Brian lived a short walk from their Key West office under a canopy of tropical trees on Peacon Lane. They never owned a vehicle in Key West, but they were well-known for pulling a bright red wagon to the nearby grocery store while nattily dressed in white shirts and slacks with black ties and white boater caps.
In the late ’90s, I helped Hanns operate his office whenever he was leading a tour. In 2000, he told me that he wanted to write books instead of business letters, and said he was either going to close his company or sell it to me. We quickly worked out a contract, and I bought the company on January 4, 2001. Hanns published a book a year until his death in 2006. The final book was Egypt in my Blood, about his 38 visits to that ancient land.
Hanns never did return to Germany. He also chose to never offer a tour to that land that had made his family feel unwelcome enough to emigrate. However, one of his proudest moments came during the 2004 IGLTA Convention in Vancouver.
Hanns gave a keynote speech about how he meticulously planned the first gay tours to the Grand Canyon, to Carnival in Rio, and to Marlon Brando’s private island off Tahiti. The Board was so impressed that they voted to rename their award the Hanns Ebensten Hall of Fame Award, then presented the first one to Hanns himself.
When he walked back to his table, a woman from the next table rose to greet him in German. She was the Lord Mayor of Cologne, which was to host the next IGLTA Convention. She said she was pleased to hear how much Hanns had accomplished since his childhood in Germany.
When we said good-bye at the airport, Hanns had a big grin and said how nice it was to come full circle and have a German mayor congratulate him and the IGLTA recognize his pioneering role in gay travel. He then looked at me and for the first time since entrusting his only “child” to me three years earlier said, “Well done, Philip”.
I feel honored to have had such an accomplished man as my mentor, and to have been able to carry on his legacy for over two decades.