Nepal will this year play host to a royal wedding with a difference when an openly gay Indian prince marries his partner at a Hindu temple in Kathmandu.
The ceremony is the start of what Nepalese lawmaker Sunil Babu Pant hopes will become a lucrative business for his country, whose once thriving tourist industry is still reeling from a civil war that ended in 2006.
Pant, the only openly gay member of Nepal’s parliament, has set up a travel agency catering specifically for homosexuals, who he says face severe discrimination in many Asian countries.
He believes Nepal, which has made large strides forward on gay rights issues in recent years, is well placed to cash in on an industry worth an estimated US$670 million worldwide.
“If we brought even one percent of that market to Nepal it would be big. But I’m hoping we can attract 10 percent,” said Pant, who was selected in May 2008 to represent a small communist party in Nepal’s parliament.
“The choices [for gay tourists] in this region are very limited, and there is really no competition from China or India. Nepal is one of the few places where adventure tourism is available to people,” he said.
Pant said he has been overwhelmed with enquiries since setting up his travel agency, Pink Mountain.
The company will offer gay-themed tours of Nepal’s major tourist sites as well as organize wedding ceremonies.
Pant’s plans have won the support of the tourism ministry in Nepal, a deeply conservative country that nonetheless has some of the most progressive policies on homosexuality in Asia.
Two years ago, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the government to enact laws to guarantee the rights of gays and lesbians after the Blue Diamond Society, a pressure group run by Pant, filed a petition.
The country’s new Constitution, currently being drafted by lawmakers, is expected to define marriage as a union between two adult individuals, regardless of gender, and to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Laxman Bhattarai, joint secretary in Nepal’s Tourism Ministry, said the government had no specific policies on gay tourism, but would support Pant’s enterprise.
“The government has declared its ambition of attracting a million tourists to Nepal in 2011 which is a big increase,” he said.
“Nepal is a safe place to come now. We want to develop new tourist destinations and get people coming back after the civil war. If he can help us in any way, we are happy,” Bhattarai said.
The wedding of Indian prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, scion of the family that once ruled Rajpipla in the western state of Gujarat, looks likely to create the kind of publicity Nepal’s tourism business so desperately needs.
Pant says he is motivated by a desire to help boost Nepal’s struggling economy, and hopes the initiative will create jobs.
“Some of Nepal’s best hairstylists and beauticians are from the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community,” he said. “They have seen all kinds of struggles in the past and have had problems finding jobs. Holding gay weddings in Nepal is a win-win situation for them and for the country.”
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