• Responsible Tourism
  • 13 April, 2024

The Safest Asian Country for Rainbow Tourists

The Safest Asian Country for Rainbow Tourists
Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

“Nepal is one of the safest destinations for rainbow tourists in Asia!” declares Sunil Babu Pant. “In South-Asia maybe?” I venture out to correct him. “One of the safest countries for LGBT travelers in all of Asia,” he confidently restates. 

For those of us who have been following the developments of LGBT rights in Nepal, the name of Mr. Pant is familiar, loved and well respected. Mr. Pant is the first openly gay Parliament Member in Asia, founder of the Blue Diamond Society, and the first to address issues of HIV/AIDS in Nepal. He is among the leading activists for LGBT rights in the country, with his most recent accomplishments being in the field of equal marital rights. It is thanks to him that conversations regarding the disparity of rights granted to the LGBT community compared to the rest of society have entered the mainstream, and most of all, it is thanks to his life’s work that the LGBT community in Nepal has basic human rights such as same-sex marriage and recognition of “other” genders on legal documents. It is safe to say that in the last few decades, Nepal has seen some incredible progress in this field, and is ready to set an example for the rest of Asia, which, with the exception of a couple of nations, is still very much behind in providing a safe life to locals and tourists belonging to the rainbow community.

LGBT Nepal
Maya and Surendra show their legal marriage certificate with Mr. Pant. Photo by Sunil Babu Pant.

As Mr. Pant says that Nepal is and has been safe for rainbow travelers with a radiant and confident smile on his face, his colleagues and friends present in his office at Maya Ko Pahichan nod, agreeing with him. As someone who is not part of the LGBT community, but is, or tries to be an ally, this common sentiment in the room comes as somewhat of a surprise, mainly due to my initial ignorance on the subject. With an undercurrent of conservatism, religiosity, and patriarchy, can Nepal really be what Mr. Pant and his associates claim it to be? 

The Safe and Welcoming Spirit of Nepal

Nepal has held a special place in people’s imaginaries ever since it was popularized as a tourist destination in the 70s. People are not wrong when they imagine Nepal as a mystical mountainous nation, home to many indigenous communities who, to this day, preserve ancient lifestyles and cultural heritages with great dedication. Thanks to the astounding natural beauty, cultural integrity and hospitable inhabitants of Nepal, the country is a favorite among travelers, and it is rare to meet someone who comes to Nepal only once in their lifetime. One of the reasons Nepal is so dear to travelers is the sense of calm safety that imbues the nation. This general feeling of warmth and safety is especially appreciated by those who could feel vulnerable when traveling. I have known many solo travelers, especially women of various ages, who keep on returning to Nepal because of the positive experiences they have had here on a humane and societal level. I had my reservation on whether the same sense of safety transpires through to rainbow travelers, who, with nations still upholding criminalizing laws and bigoted social climates, are among the most vulnerable and restricted demographic of travelers. 

Trying to mask my surprise, I ask the people in the room what is it about Nepal that makes it a safe place for rainbow travelers, and what do LGBT tourists need in order to feel safe and welcome in a country.

As Mr. Pant thinks, Manil Singh, the winner of Nepal’s first Mr. Gay pageant, introduces me to the notion of Pink Tourism, “Countries like Thailand and Greece have it really good when it comes to marketing themselves as an LGBT friendly travel destination. Now it’s Nepal’s turn to become a Pink Tourism destination. Even though Nepal is an LGBT friendly nation, it is just now using the term Pink Tourism to promote itself. By doing so it will be good for the economy and for the local LGBT community because it will make sure that inclusive policies are upheld in places such as hotels and restaurants when it comes to employing LGBT staff and protecting them from being terminated on the basis of their identity.”

Nepal has many qualities which a rainbow tourist could need to feel secure and welcome. Most importantly, it is taking great care to be increasingly inclusive in the future. Mr. Pant explains to me, “Nepal fits many of the requirements for rainbow tourists, both from a legal and a societal standpoint.”

“Yes,” says Mr. Pant, “Nepal has been an LGBT friendly country for a long time. You know, the people of Nepal are incredibly kind and open. There is an ingrained hospitable nature here. All Nepali people come from a foundation of deep respect and tolerance towards each other. So even if something is not sitting right with them, or if they are somewhat uncomfortable with any given situation, it will really take them a lot to come out and vocalize it and even more to be driven to violence. They generally keep a silent smile on their face and tend to accept whatever is in front of them, keeping their curiosities to themselves. Nepal is a very smiling country, and that initial acceptance and welcoming is given to everyone, even to strange strangers. It is in our habit, so it’s not a fake smile at all.”

Developing Pink Tourism in Nepal

Now Nepal is more than just being an LGBT friendly country. Mr. Pant used to run a travel agency, which was Nepal’s first LGBT travel agency, so, he is well versed in the needs of such travelers and the positive impact they can have on Nepali society and economy. “It took me ten years to get where we are now. Not only do I face no resistance or opposition, but I have full-fledged support from the major stakeholders in the tourism industry. The local communities are very excited. We are all looking forward to the future. Nepal Tourism Board is behind us, the government is supporting us too. I have talked to several political parties, and they said ‘yeah it’s a nice idea’. Travel companies, trekking agencies, hotels, and other entities from the private sector are looking to learn how to be more inclusive, and I train them on this topic, too.”

I ask him, “Do you really face no opposition at all?” He says, “A couple of days ago, some religious leaders got together to oppose rainbow marriages and Pink Tourism. But really, who cares? Their preconceived notions are all wrong. They think rainbow marriages are a threat to society and that Pink Tourism is just a laundered term for sex tourism when it really isn’t. Pink Tourism is just about creating safe spaces for people who could otherwise be vulnerable when traveling. Their disapproval doesn’t affect us in any way. The wave of Pink Tourism has already started in Nepal, and there is no going back. We have constitutional rights, there are strong laws in place, all our different identities are recognized by the state. Our community is acknowledged, and we have marriage equality. Every stakeholder that actually matters is with us, so I don’t really worry about a couple of religious extremists.”

I wonder whether said stakeholders support Pink Tourism only for the financial gains predicted by the niche of travelers that it will attract, or whether they do it or the cause. To this, Mr. Pant says, “They do it for inclusivity because they have nothing against it, they do it for the profit of their businesses too. One doesn’t exclude the other and it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Nepal fulfills the most basic component to be able to call itself a Pink destination, which is that there is no penalization for being part of the LGBT community. This is more than many countries in the world have to offer, even if it is the bare minimum. Building on that, any violence, discrimination or mistreatment on the basis of gender identity or sexuality is against the constitution. With rainbow marriages coming into practice, Nepal is on its way to becoming a true and complete haven for the LGBT community, both local and international.

The Worse That Can Happen is Some Awkwardness

Mr. Pant says that he has never seen explicit hatred towards rainbow travelers in Nepal, and that the worst he has heard of are just some awkward conversations between the traveler and a service provider. He recalls the experience of a trekking guide, “In Nepal, one of the first questions people ask when making conversation is ‘are you married’ or ‘how many kids do you have.’ Once, when a guide asked these questions, the traveler replied with ‘I’m a lesbian.’ The guide had no bad sentiments towards her, but she simply didn’t know how to continue the conversation. For the rest of the trek, they were bound to minimal, utilitarian conversation. In my trainings, I inform people like this guide on how not to feel awkward when conversing with rainbow travelers, among other things.”

“Another common instance of awkwardness is when a same-sex couple books a hotel room. The receptionist often gives such couples a room with separate beds, under the assumption that the couple are just friends. Again, the couple will face no hatred or other threats from the hotel staff, and the worst thing that can happen is some flustered embarrassment as the room is being switched to one with a matrimonial bed. These small blunders can happen, but they ultimately result in inclusivity and non-judgment” says Mr. Pant.

Now that stake holders in the private sector are jumping on the bandwagon of Pink Tourism, their participation in inclusivity trainings is increasing exponentially and with them, the instances of awkward encounters decrease as hotel staff, tour guides and operators have more exposure to the LGBT community and learn how to respond and behave to scenarios that are new to them. “Regardless,” says Mr. Pant, “the important thing to realize is that there is never any hatred or discrimination behind these encounters.”

But Deep Down, Has Nepal Always Been a Little Bit Rainbow?

I can’t help but wonder whether there are some elements of Nepali, or of indigenous Himalayan cultures that are of specific interest to LGBT travelers. From Mr. Pant’s spirited reply, I could sense that we could have stayed up hours talking about this, but time permitted us to only brush upon the surface of this topic. Besides the qualities that would attract any travelers to Nepal, like its vibrant communities and rich nature, the art, culture, and ancient religions of Nepal address LGBT identities in a way that could be particularly interesting to rainbow travelers.

LGBT Nepal
Erotic woodwork that depicts liberties that were more acceptable in Nepal’s distant past than they are now. Photo by Sunil Babu Pant

”There is evidence of Nepal having a strong matriarchal past, where social norms weren’t as rigid and controlled as they have become from the last 2000 years onwards. Remnants of that past are still visible today, especially among indigenous communities that have been less affected by the brahminical patriarchy. Looking at artwork, you can see many different forms of heterosexual, homosexual and polyamorous unions. We have temples for hermaphrodite deities, gender fluid shamans.”

”Shamans seem to have been a profession reserved for LGBT people. They used to grow their hair long, shave all their facial hair, wear women’s jewelry, and even move in a feminine way. All over Nepal, from Gurung people in the hills, to the indigenous people in the Terai, there are ritual dances performed by men, where they clothe themselves and dance in feminine ways. In that moment, they embody someone who isn’t exactly a man nor a woman, but someone in between. Some of those men stay that way not just for the duration of the dance, but for how ever long it pleases them, and it is perfectly acceptable by their society. Somewhere along the line of history, theme practices and sentiments were marginalized, but they were not entirely erased. They are alive and well today.”

Even though Nepal may appear to be restrictively conservative under many aspects, delving into ancient spiritual practices, or paying attention to the details of the figures represented in our everlasting monuments, we can see that the freedom of finding love and identity in many different forms has been the norm, and that somewhere along the line, restrictions took hold of society. Mr. Pant explains that in rural, indigenous communities, the undercurrent of freedom is still palpable.

The Next Big Wedding Destination

”Look at Maya and Surendra’s wedding. It happened in a remote Gurung village in Lamjung. Even though it was a rainbow marriage, the whole village came together to party, drink and dance like at any other wedding. It was marvelous. No one batted an eye or asked rude questions regarding the couple’s gender identity and sexuality. It was a pure celebration of love, as a wedding should be,” Mr. Pant recalls.

Nepal Tourism Board is promoting the country as a wedding destination, and within it are rainbow marriages. For couples who do not have marital rights in their home country, traveling to Nepal has the potential of fulfilling a life’s dream during a beautifully serene vacation.

LGBT Nepal
An elderly Gurung woman blessing the marriage of Maya and Surendra during celebration in Lamjung. Photo by Sunil Babu Pant

The Future is Bright

As I leave the office of Maya Ko Pahichan, I can’t help but feel the power of the positivity and hopefulness of Mr. Pant and his associates. Thinking about the legal and societal developments that have occurred in Nepal in the last years, I imagine how many Nepali people are now free to marry the person they love. While the road to breaking down all barriers is still long, these developments have removed some large issues, setting Nepal as an example to other religious, conservative societies in Asia.

With the blooming of Pink Tourism waiting just ahead of us, the future is bright for the LGBT community in Nepal.

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