By Anup Kaphle and Habiba Nosheen
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:29 AM
IN KATHMANDU, NEPAL 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 Nosheen is a freelance writer.