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Why Nepal could be the next big LGBTQ travel destination

<i>Sunil Pradhan/Nurphoto/Getty Images</i><br/>People take part in a pride parade in Kathmandu in 2017.
Sunil Pradhan/Nurphoto/Getty Images
People take part in a pride parade in Kathmandu in 2017.

By Bibek Bhandari, CNN

Kathmandu (CNN) — As Nepal’s first openly gay parliamentarian, Sunil Babu Pant educated his colleagues on LGBTQ topics. More than a decade later, the former lawmaker and activist is sharing similar knowledge with locals and tourists on the capital’s streets.

On Saturdays, Pant hosts a heritage walk through the heart of Kathmandu, which is dotted with ancient temples, stupas and decrepit old houses that have withstood haphazard urbanization. The three-hour tour introduces the city’s matriarchal religious sites while exploring elements of gender and sexuality.

These sites, some in Hindu temples, feature paintings and wooden carvings with deities engaging in sexual acts, along with homoerotic illustrations and hermaphroditic figures.

“You’ll see a lot of nudity, it’s very normal … living in Kathmandu, it should be taken as pride, not shame,” says Pant. As he navigates the dusty streets, the aroma of incense, along with freshly brewed chiya, or milk tea, and traditional morning breakfast items – gwara mari, or fried dough balls, and the sweet fluffy malpuwa – in nearby shops fills the morning air.

Pant’s heritage tour, which he pioneered in 2010, is a personal endeavor, partly aimed at promoting LGBTQ tourism in the South Asian country. Now, the Nepal government is showing interest in investing in LGBTQ-specific services to tap into the multi-billion dollar “pink economy” and promote LGBTQ inclusion in the country’s tourism industry.

As an initial step, the Nepal Tourism Board – a quasi-government organization – partnered with the government-run Nepal Mountaineering Academy to launch the country’s first trekking guide training program for LGBTQ individuals in April. With Nepal banning solo trekkers this year, organizers say the new graduates will help meet demand from tourists specifically looking to hire LGBTQ guides.

Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, is considered to be an ideal trekking destination. Though there is no official data, anecdotal evidence suggests many LGBTQ travelers visit the country, making it “important to train people who are comfortable with them and understand them better,” says Himal Pandit, coordinator of the training program.

The 25 trainees gathered for their final lesson at a Kathmandu wall-climbing center on a hot June morning hope to bridge that gap. Four trainees told CNN they participated after recognizing a lack of government-licensed LGBTQ trekking guides and wished to work in the field while catering to the LGBTQ community.

Manoj/Asshika, who identifies as gender-fluid and prefers to use first names only, is one of them. The young trainee says the program would ultimately allow participants to establish their LTBTQ-focused travel agency in the future, benefiting both foreign and local trekkers.

“I love trekking, but I don’t find queer friends and guides to go with,” says Manoj/Asshika. “I feel confident to guide now. We’re starting a new trend, we’re being trendsetters.”

Ravit Kushmi, a participant who identifies as queer, calls the training “historic,” adding they can serve as Nepal’s LGBTQ tourism ambassadors. Beyond trekking-related services, he says the guides could also introduce visitors to the local LGBTQ scene and queer-friendly spaces.

Currently, Nepal has a few openly LGBTQ-focused establishments, including the well-known Pink Tiffany bar in the tourist area of Thamel. But Pant believes most businesses are generally tolerant, and the country’s pro-LGBTQ laws make Nepal a safe destination for tourists – they wouldn’t need to hide their identities.

A petition authored by Pant led to a landmark ruling in 2007, when Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered the government to scrap discriminatory laws and grant equal rights to the LGBTQ community. Those protections were later enshrined in Nepal’s republican constitution in 2015.

“Countries that showcase an inclusive government stand to benefit from increased tourism,” John Tanzella, president of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) wrote in an email. “Having the laws is wonderful, but proudly promoting those inclusive policies sends a strong message, not only to LGBTQ+ travelers, but also their friends, families and allies.”

Nepal ranked 44th among 203 countries and territories in a 2023 LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index. It was the leader in Asia, followed by Taiwan at number 48, India at 51 and Thailand at 62.

Taiwan, with its marriage equality law, has positioned itself as an LGBTQ-friendly destination. Meanwhile, Thailand is using its gay romance dramas, events and medical tourism to attract visitors.

But Pant believes LGBTQ tourists have favored those destinations for years, and Nepal offers a fresh travel experience in Asia. In 2010, he briefly ran Nepal’s first gay travel agency, Pink Mountain, and organized multiple same-sex weddings.

In a first-of-its-kind event, an American couple, Courtney Mitchell and Sarah Welton, gained international headlines for their Hindu wedding ceremony at a temple in Kathmandu that year.

Marriage equality isn’t legal in Nepal yet, but Pant says people can honor their relationships and get married symbolically.

On June 28, Nepal’s Supreme Court issued a temporary order directing relevant government departments to set up a “transitional mechanism” to register the marriage of LGBTQ couples.

“Same-sex weddings would be very lucrative for Nepal,” adds Pant. “Nepal has potential if it promotes itself as a gay wedding and honeymoon destination for LGBTQ couples. There’s an untapped market.”

As Nepal attempts to revive its tourism industry, ravaged by the 2015 earthquake and Covid-19, the country is making efforts to do just that. The Nepal Tourism Board plans to launch an official LGBTQ tourism campaign soon, too.

“This niche market will contribute to Nepal’s tourism,” says Mani R. Lamichhane, director of the Nepal Tourism Board. “We hadn’t explored or tapped into this market officially. But now we are ready to declare Nepal an LGBTQI-friendly destination.”

Apart from bringing much-needed tourist dollars, “pink tourism” in Nepal is likely to create tourism-related jobs for locals who openly identify as LGBTQ. One of the trainee trekking guides says it will give them more visibility and break stereotypes.

“In Nepal, there’s this negative and wrong perception that transgender women mostly work as sex workers,” says Rubina Bhujel, who identifies as a trans woman. “If we are visible in other professions, such as trekking guides, then it helps change that perception.”

Local academics who study Nepal’s gender and sexual minorities believe that promoting LGBTQ tourism is encouraging, and its impact will extend far beyond economic benefits.

Madhurima Bhadra, who teaches gender and public health at Nepal’s Mid-West University, says LGBTQ tourism campaigns could partly become a catalyst for positive change for community members.

A June report by UN Women suggests that despite the country’s progressive laws, many Nepali LGBTQ individuals still battle with social stigma and various forms of violence.

“If the government is serious about this campaign, it needs to do more to remove the stigma and lack of understanding of what the community represents,” Bhadra says. “If done honestly and well, it would be able to create acceptance of Nepali LGBTQ community, especially in terms of education, livelihoods, and overall safety and wellbeing.”

Pant, the former lawmaker who hosts the heritage walk, agrees. He says Nepal’s LGBTQ tourism would provide mutual benefits, particularly for tourists visiting the country seeking adventure and spiritual experiences.

“Nepal is a unique country – the tantric elements you see in our cultural heritage make you happy,” he says, referring to the LGBTQ representations in temples. “Once you see that the whole society is looking up to something spiritually, ideologically and see how the images are revered, it’s very uplifting to witness that.”

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