Nepal will 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 decade-long 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 homosexual tourists, 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 thanks largely to his own efforts, is well placed to cash in on an industry worth an estimated $US670 million worldwide.
“If we brought even one per cent of that market to Nepal it would be big. But I’m hoping we can attract 10 per cent,” 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 – including Hindu temples that feature carvings of the god Shiva depicted as half man, half woman – as well as organise wedding ceremonies.
Pant’s plans have won the support of the tourism ministry in Nepal, a deeply conservative, mainly Hindu 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 MPs, 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.
Around 500,000 foreign tourists travelled to Nepal in 2009.
“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.”
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 believes it will be followed by many more such ceremonies, and is already organising a wedding for a lesbian couple from Massachusetts who want to hold their nuptials in Mustang, high in the Himalayas.