During what some gays jokingly call "the dark ages" a decade or two ago, companies shunned the gay market out of ignorance or fear of a backlash. Many cities and convention-and-visitors bureaus overlooked gay travelers. Marketing people lacked hard data to target gay consumers nationwide.

Today, the market for gay and lesbian consumers is highly coveted and hitting the mainstream in a huge way, say consultants, marketing professionals and executives.

The 16 million gay consumers age 18 and older in the USA boast $641 billion in buying power, or cash to spend after taxes, reports Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive.

Dozens of cities that didn't cater to gay travelers decades ago — including Miami, Dallas, Philadelphia, Phoenix, even Bloomington, Ind. — are wooing gays to their hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.

Why now?

"We're at a tipping point, with gays coming out in society and business," says Andrew Freeman of Andrew Freeman & Co., a hospitality and restaurant consultancy in San Francisco. "All of a sudden, we've become a great market for all industries to go after."

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