Nepal puts out the wel­come mat for gay tourists

Af­ter changes that in­clude ap­prov­ing same-sex mar­riage, Hi­malayan coun­try wants to re­cover rev­enue lost dur­ing in­sur­gency


For Court­ney Mitchell, it was love at first sight 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 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 tourists to tie the knot and hon­ey­moon in the Hi­malayas.

Since then, the coun­try’s Supreme Court has ap­proved same sex mar­riage, ask­ing law­mak­ers to guar­an­tee gays 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 gay rights and the idea of gay 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 Maoists, and gays faced wide­spread ha­rass­ment.

Nepal, 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, the cap­i­tal.

Pant, who runs the Blue Di­a­mond So­ci­ety, a gay rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, has been lead­ing the tourism ef­fort. He re­cently started Pink Moun­tain, a travel agency that of­fers vacation pack­ages to gay and trans­gen­der tourists. A wed­ding and hon­ey­moon pack­age in­cludes a two-week ad­ven­ture in the coun­try’s moun­tains and jun­gles.

With much of the re­gion hes­i­tant to wel­come gays, Pant sees 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 Nepal’s econ­omy, suf­fered a se­vere blow when the Maoist in­sur­gency peaked in 2001. At­tract­ing high-spend­ing gay tourists is seen as one way to make up the lost rev­enue.

“ They spend a lot, and we want tourists in this coun­try who will spend a lot,” said Kishore Thapa, Nepal’s sec­re­tary of tourism.

The coun­try’s Tourism Board, which serves as a bridge be­tween the govern­ment and the in­dus­try, is pro­mot­ing travel pack­ages for gays on the Web site for Nepal Tourism Year 2011.

Ac­cord­ing to the govern­ment’s an­nual re­port, tourism con­trib­uted about $372 mil­lion to the econ­omy last year, from slightly more than 500,000 vis­i­tors. Of­fi­cials are hop­ing to dou­ble that num­ber by next year.

But the govern­ment is leav­ing most of the out­reach to gays 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 tourists, al­though he said his agency has only had a hand­ful of book­ings so far.

And de­spite the chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward gays, 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.”

Pant dis­missed con­cerns that the ef­fort 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 In­dia, Amer­ica and Eng­land, what makes you think that you go there for pil­grim­age and I go there for sex?” Re­port­ing for this ar­ti­cle was par­tially funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Cen­ter on Cri­sis Re­port­ing. Habiba is free­lance writer.


Hun­dreds march in a gay pride pa­rade in Kath­mandu, or­ga­nized by the Nepali gay rights group Blue Di­a­mond So­ci­ety in Au­gust.


Su­nil Babu Pant, Nepal’s first openly gay law­maker and the founder of PinkMoun­tain travel agency, is lead­ing the tourism ini­tia­tive. Pri­vate com­pa­nies are han­dling most of the out­reach to gays.

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