After String of Gay-Friendly Measures, Nepal Aims to Tap Valuable Tourist Market

Nepal, the tiny Himalayan country known for some of the highest mountains in the world, now wants to establish itself as the world's newest gay destination. Image by Anup Kaphle & Habiba Nosheen, Nepal, 2011.

Nepal, the tiny Himalayan country known for some of the highest mountains in the world, now wants to establish itself as the world's newest gay destination. Image by Anup Kaphle & Habiba Nosheen, Nepal, 2011.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL - For Courtney Mitchell, it was love at first site when she arrived in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1998. In June, Mitchell will return with her girlfriend, Sarah Welton, for a Hindu-inspired wedding and honeymoon.

"I thought if we could expose others in our lives to the transitioning landscape in terms of gay rights issues in Nepal, that would be amazing," said Mitchell, 40, who teaches psychology at the University of Denver.

Attracting couples like Mitchell and Welton is part of the Nepal's plan to establish itself as the world's newest gay tourism destination. As it begins to recover from a decade-long insurgency and a prolonged political stalemate, the country wants a share of the multibillion-dollar gay tourism market to boost its sliding economy.

Two years ago, Nepal became the first country in South Asia to decriminalize homosexuality, a move the government hoped would invite gay and lesbian tourists to tie the knot and spend their honeymoon in the Himalayas.

Since then, the country's Supreme Court has approved same-sex marriage, asking lawmakers to formulate laws that guarantee gays and lesbians equal rights under the new constitution. Nepal now issues "third-gender" national ID cards and elected its first openly gay lawmaker to parliament, Sunil Babu Pant, in 2008.

Now the country is promoting Mount Everest as a destination for gay weddings.

But many Nepalis oppose gays rights and the idea of gay and lesbian tourism, and the government has had to act cautiously. The majority of Nepalis are Hindus, who do not view homosexuality favorably.

During the insurgency, transgender men and women were regularly harassed and beaten by Maoist cadres, and gays and lesbians faced widespread harassment.

The country, which used to be the only Hindu kingdom in the world, became a secular country in 2006. After the war ended, small ethnic and minority rights groups began demanding equality and power - and in the name of a secular and new republic, the country started passing laws against discrimination.

Some members of Nepal's gay community say they are still not comfortable opening up about their sexuality, citing discrimination from law enforcement and society. "They will call us names, and some of our members have even been raped," said Pradeep Khadka, a gay man who lives in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital.

Pant, who runs Blue Diamond Society, a gay rights organization, has been leading Nepal's effort to lure gay and lesbian tourists. He recently started Pink Mountain Tours, a travel agency that offers vacation packages to gay, lesbian and transgender tourists. Pink Mountain also offers wedding and honeymoon packages to gay tourists - a two-week-long adventure through the mountains and jungles of Nepal.

Most of South Asia is still hesitant to open up to gays and lesbians, and Pant sees that as an opportunity for Nepal. "As India and China are slowly emerging, gay groups are growing and their courts are looking at homosexuality positively," he said. "If we wait another five years, they will take over."

Tourism, the key driver of Nepali economy, suffered a severe blow when the Maoist insurgency peaked in 2001. Now the country wants to make up for its lost revenue, some of that with the assistance of the high-spending gay tourists.

"They spend a lot, and we want tourists in this country who will spend a lot," said Kishore Thapa, secretary at the government's Tourism Ministry.

The country's tourism board, which serves as a bridge between the government and the private tourism industry, is promoting travel packages for gay and lesbian tourists on the official Web site for Nepal Tourism Year.

According to the Nepal government's annual report, tourism contributed about $372 million to the Nepali economy, with slightly more than 500,000 visitors last year. Officials are hoping to double the number next year.

Other than the official tourism Web site, the country also has not aggressively marketed its initiative, leaving most of the outreach to international gay tourists to private companies.

"There might be some elements within the society who negatively react or create some kind of obstructions to these tourists," Thapa said. "So we have to make some kind of a balance between our culture and tourism."

Pant said he can draw as many as 300,000 gay and lesbian tourists but has only had a handful of bookings through his own travel agency so far.

Although the country might have made rapid changes regarding homosexuality, many Nepalis expressed unease with the initiative.

"I don't think our culture allows us to do such things so openly," said Dipendra Ghimire, who works at a hotel in Kathmandu. "I know countries like Thailand have been doing it, but for Nepal, I don't think it is just appropriate."

But Pant dismissed concerns that luring gay and lesbian tourists would transform Nepal into a sex tourism destination.

"People think sexual minority communities are after sex all the time," he said. "If you can go to India, America or England, and I also travel to to India, America and England, what makes you think that you go there for pilgrimage and I go there for sex?"