Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Same-sex marriage in the Himalayas? Nepal targets gay travelers to boost tourism dollars

Same-sex marriage in the Himalayas? Nepal targets gay travelers to boost tourism dollars

KATMANDU, Nepal - Nepal wants to paint Mount Everest pink.

It wants gay honeymooners trekking through the Himalayas.

It wants to host the world's highest same-sex wedding at Everest base camp.

But mainly, the conservative Hindu nation wants a chunk of the multibillion dollar gay tourist market to help pull it out of poverty.

That quest — brushing aside historical biases in pursuit of economic opportunity — is symbolic of one of the gay rights movement's most stunning successes.

Just five years ago, police were beating gays and transsexuals in the streets.

Now, the issue of gay rights is almost passe here.

Nepal has an openly gay parliamentarian, it is issuing "third gender" identity cards and it appears set to enshrine gay rights — and possibly even same-sex marriage — in a new constitution.

"(It) is not an issue anymore, for anybody," said Vishnu Adhikari, a 21-year-old lesbian. "Society has basically accepted us."

That acceptance has become a major marketing opportunity for a country cursed by desperate poverty, but blessed with majestic beauty.

Tourism is one of the main drivers of Nepal's economy, worth about $350 million last year, and government officials are determined to double tourism to 1 million visitors next year.

They hope gay tourists will be far more lucrative than the backpackers who stay in cheap hotels here and travel on shoestring budgets.

"They do have a lot of income ... they are high-spending consumers," said Aditya Baral, spokesman for the Nepal Tourism Board. "If they behave well, if they have money, we don't discriminate."

The driving force is Sunil Pant, a member of parliament, the nation's most prominent gay activist and founder of the new Pink Mountain tour company.

The nation's mountains, food and culture are a natural tourist magnet, he said. Additionally, gay tourists could get married at Everest base camp and honeymoon on an elephant safari — though since Nepal doesn't marry foreigners, such weddings would have no legal status, he said.

"With that, money will come here and jobs will be created," he said.

A growing segment of the gay tourism market — worth $63 billion in the U.S. alone — craves adventure travel and exotic locations, especially if they are seen as hospitable to gay travelers, said John Tanzella, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.

As for an Everest wedding, "I think there would certainly be a niche within our community that would be very excited for this type of memorable experience," he said.

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