Organizing a wedding at a Hindu temple is nothing unusual in Nepal. Most Nepalis, the majority of whom are Hindu, opt for a traditional ceremony in one of the country's thousands of places of worship, believing that it sanctifies a couple's bond.
But on a sunny day on June 20, a temple nestled in the hills not far from the capital Kathmandu hosted a new kind of wedding. When Courtney Mitchell, 41, put the vermilion powder the symbol of marriage for Hindu women on the forehead of her girlfriend, Sarah Welton, 48, the American couple became the first lesbians to tie the knot in a public Hindu marriage ceremony in Nepal.
They exchanged garlands as a young Hindu priest chanted mantras and local artisans played the five traditional musical instruments of the rite. Mitchell, who teaches psychology at the University of Denver, was dressed in the colorful traditional Nepalese attire of the groom, a long double-breasted shirt worn with loose trousers and a wedge-shaped, embroidered cap. Welton, a lawyer, was resplendent in red sari and blouse, adorned with Nepali jewelry.
The ceremony marked the beginning of a potentially lucrative niche market in Nepal, aimed at tapping into the $670 million global gay-tourism industry. Last year, Nepal's openly gay lawmaker Sunil Babu Pant launched Pink Mountain, the nation's first travel agency to cater exclusively to gay tourists. Selling Nepal as a wedding destination for gay couples, many of whom live in countries where same-sex marriage is illegal, has been widely embraced by the entrepreneurs of the tourism sector, a once thriving industry that was dealt a severe blow during the decade-long Maoist insurgency that claimed the lives of 16,000 people.
The end of the insurgency heralded a new era for the gay and lesbian community in this conservative Himalayan nation. With the country opening up to new ideas and myriad minorities gaining acceptance under the banner of inclusiveness, Nepal made large strides forward on gay-rights issues. In December 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to ensure the rights of gays and lesbians, decriminalizing homosexuality. At the forefront of this battle has been Pant, who, through his rights group Blue Diamond Society, has been instrumental in the fight for the rights of sexual minorities since 2001.
Today, Pant's newer venture offers gay-themed tours of Nepal's major tourist sites, and a Hindu-inspired wedding with a weeklong travel package that costs $11,000. He says he's been overwhelmed with inquiries since the American couple's wedding received wide coverage in the international press. Both couples and singles from Canada, China, and Germany, among other places, have booked tours and inquired about weddings in the past month alone, and he expects more clients to come calling once the monsoon ends and the holiday season begins. "The local people are gradually opening up," Pant says. "Many businesses have issued special rates for our clients."
Tourism in Nepal, the famed home of Mount Everest and birthplace of the Buddha, has been gradually picking up since the civil war ended in 2006. Tourism currently accounts for around 7% of Nepal's GDP. The government has declared 2011 "Nepal Tourism Year," aiming to double the number of visitors to the Himalayan nation. In 2010, more than 500,000 tourists crossed the border the highest number since the fighting ended.
Even the country's traditionally conservative bureaucracy is upbeat about the prospect of attracting gay tourists and their dollars, yuan and rupees. Sharad Pradhan, a spokesman with the state-run Nepal Tourism Board, says Pant's campaign has the government's tacit approval. "Nepal is much more liberal than other countries," Pradhan says. "All the tourist sites are open for everyone, including gays and lesbians."
Indeed, a recently concluded nationwide census included the "third gender," individuals who identify themselves as neither man or woman regardless of their gender at birth, as an alternative category. The country has issued citizenship for individuals who identify as third gender since 2008, and the new constitution is expected to define marriage as a union between two adult individuals, regardless of how they identify themselves.
But the constitution drafting, one of the key tasks promised in the peace deal signed four years ago, has been delayed a major roadblock, says Pant, for cashing in on this emerging market. "[Gay tourists] want to be fully assured that homosexuality has been decriminalized in the host country," he says. Nepal's laws, still murky in this long transition period, may cause some to hesitate. "The progress has been slow. All they want is a marriage certificate from the government."
And not everyone in Nepal is on board to make this country a deeply conservative society which prided itself as the world's only Hindu kingdom before becoming secular in 2006 a gay-vacation destination. Groups that consider homosexuality "unnatural" and against Nepali tradition have openly opposed Pant's campaign. "This is an attack against our culture," says Basudev Krishna Shastri, an astrologer who heads the National Religion Awareness Campaign, which urges its supporters to follow ancient Hindu Vedic lifestyles that define marriage as between a man and a woman. "We need not promote gay tourism in order to attract tourists. We can do so by promoting our unique culture and the mountains." Shastri says his group has mulled a lawsuit against the American couple for marrying in a temple, claiming that they "polluted" the local culture. The group withdrew the case after no lawyers came forward to defend their case.
Despite these challenges, Pant remains optimistic and is open for business. Pink Mountain's next temple wedding, booked by a couple from Germany, is planned for October. "We have cautiously built a brand for the gay tourists," he says. "If they want to visit a location which is exotic and rich in both tradition and natural beauty with friendly people, then Nepal is the place."