After the reeling effects of a 11 year old civil conflict which nearly saw the death of Nepal´s tourism industry, the country in 2008 is quickly surging back to become the world´s number one adventure tourism destination with a robust cumulative 33% growth rate compared to last year, a 24% increase in air arrivals in January 2008, and a multitude of services offered to the tourists. Along with the new tourist figures, the rate of Nepalese women lured into the commercial sex trade has also increased four fold with a mushrooming of massage parlors, upscale smoking and sex-entertainment bars, haute cuisine restaurants and mushrooming comfort lodges in Thamel, Freak Street and the Durbar Marg areas which all have one common aim— cash in on the sex tourism fueled by the easy availability of surplus foreign currency due to Nepal´s burgeoning tourism figures.
Nepal´s enduring Hindu-Buddhist charm of alluring myths and mysticisms still exist. However they only seem to be providing a cover up to the hidden realities of a rising HIV/AIDS threat involving female commercial sex workers who are increasingly attracted by the new tourism boom in Nepal.
In the past two years, the majority of foreign tourists coming to Nepal were from Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, US, and neighboring Asian countries such as India, China, Thailand, South Korea and Japan which continue supplying a younger crowd willing to try out new adventure tourism ´experiments´. Foreign tourists pay between US$ 8-10 for a typical massage session in Kathmandu, which is relatively cheap compared to Thailand or the Philippines although the risks of catching HIV/AIDS through unsafe sexual practice are quite high.
Sarala is one of those girls who works in a massage parlor in Thamel, Her name might be typically Nepalese sounding and there might be hundreds of Saralas around in Thamel, but her life is a bit estranged, one mired in absolute poverty, dejection and with no way out except to work in a forced occupation catering to hundreds of sex tourism clients each month. Sarala´s parents came to Kathmandu around 1999 from Surkhet, about 350 kilometers west, displaced by the civil conflict, and having to resort to staying with different relatives in the absence of a proper family, job, and housing, all which are vital to daily subsistence survival in Kathmandu.
Sarala was lured into the lucrative commercial sex business in Thamel by her own aunt, who was also working in a nearby Thamel restaurant as a waitress and was contacted by a middleman who offered to pay her US$ 50 for arranging the deal. Sarala at first hesitated in knowing what she was getting into, but due to the poverty in the family, and the sheer need for sustaining her parents, brothers and sisters livelihood, resorted to this lowly form of work. Sarala recently went to an HIV/AIDS Voluntary Counseling and Testing Center indirectly operated by an American INGO, and after routine testing, was certified as being HIV/AIDS free. However, she is not sure how long she will stay that way, since she comes into contact with four to seven clients daily, most of whom who choose to have unprotected sex.
Nepal makes annually between US$ 450 to US$ 600 million through adventure and pleasure tourism. The sparring 4 x 4 luxury sports vehicles dotting Kathmandu´s over congested, honking traffic lanes testify to that income generation. The tourists who visit Kathmandu on average spend five and a half days while those going to the more exotic Himalayan trekking routes spend up to three weeks. Many massage parlor girls have also recently graduated on to become trekking escorts thus further spiraling the HIV/AIDS infection chain. There are also an increasing number of Nepalese female trekking guides, well educated professional women with proper trail experience who command between US$ 200-300 a week for their services in a good season. Many of them come from the traditional Sherpa, Rai, Gurung and other ethnic populations along the trails that used to be the number one recruitment source for various mountaineering expeditions, which these days increasingly recruit Kathmandu based TAAN certified guides. The women trekking guides do not work the same way as the female trekking escorts, but are equally tempted to cater to their varying clients needs based on the amount they are paid.
HIV/AIDS has quickly become an unwanted guest in Nepal´s booming tourist market and the Nepal Government is still studying the effects than the causal factors. The Nepal Government has not so far attempted to study the hidden implications of the increased feminization of the HIV/AIDS rates in Nepal´s booming tourism sector. After all it is understaffed and government officials cater only to the big money spenders which comes by way of hefty commissions in renewing the licenses of the 300 or so local and international trekking and adventure tourism companies that have made Nepal their permanent base, some even operating under international tax loopholes and not giving a ear to the environmental regulations that usually regulate the existence of such companies in the US, the UK, Japan or Australia.
According to Nepalnews.com, Nepal´s number one e-gateway portal which also hosts the majority of Nepal´s top newspapers, e-tourism links, TV and business channels, in 2008 compared to a year earlier, the number of tourists from India declined by 12.2 percent and from Sri Lanka by 12.5 percent. However, there was an upward surge in tourism figures from other countries within South Asia by up to 7 percent. From Europe and the US it was 33.1 % and 34.3 % respectively, from China 96.8 percent, South Korea 5.1 percent, Thailand 23.2 %, and Malaysia 12.1 percent. The Korean market, thanks largely to the introduction of direct flights by Korean Air to Kathmandu contributed to nearly 15. 3 percent of the total market. European markets too have shown positive growth mainly from France 78.5 percent, Germany 4.5 percent, Spain 28.5 percent, and Netherlands 36.5 %. The international tourists are also spending more on average US$ 850 per week staying longer and enjoying Kathmandu´s sights and sounds more given the city´s quick cosmopolitan turn around in the past two decades. Western tourism entrepreneurs are also showing increased consumer confidence towards Nepal as a long term easy profit destination. The other advantage of course is the comforting existence of China and India, the world´s two largest growing economies, straddling the Nepalese borders north and south, and offering sponge like economic booster doses whenever the Nepalese government faces budget expenditure shortfalls. The country´s political situation is in total chaos with the promises of a Constituent Assembly poll which has already been deferred thrice and the resulting cat and dog fight between the seven major parties politicians all topped up with a lame duck septuagenarian prime minister who is ill and bed ridden most of the times. There is hardly any HIV/AIDS mainstreaming thinking among Nepal´s politicians let alone understanding of the deep rooted social discrimination against Nepalese women which harbors the HIV infections.
For the majority of the tourists who cannot afford the luxury of staying in Nepal´s exotically famed Soaltee Holiday Crowne Plaza, Yak and Yeti or that old legendary party venue of yesteryears, the Hotel de l´ Annapurna, Thamel is a cheaper alternative accommodation way point. Thamel is also described as the craziest and most affordable per square kilometer adventure fun destination in the entire world, according to the Lonely Planet guide.
Thamel incidentally, is where young girls like Sarala work and spend their days and weeks toiling for a simple income for their family working as massage parlor girls. A varying number of Thamel tourists are prey to the commercial sex tourism entrepreneurs from around the world who have made Kathmandu their new customer baiting spot. Everything is affordable in Kathmandu, everything can be arranged, and everything is accessible whether it is a Kathmandu green hash stick, Korean gin seng tea laced with drugs, or alternatively the world´s best six layered San Francisco pizza containing the wildest Himalayan herbs imaginable!.
According to Jose, who declines to identify his country of origin, and how long he has been in Thamel, there are big bucks to be made in the sex tourism industry in Nepal. Girls can be procured for as little as US$ 60 a month and clients charged up to US$ 100 per night. Getting a work permit in Nepalis a piece of cake, immigration is bribable. He displays a cell phone which reads like a ´who´s who?” off all the pimps around Thamel, the lower class, Freak Street areas, and one can guess, the rest of Nepal. Jose usually mixes around with the elite tourists in Durbar Marg, offering them free beers in exchange for a discreet card which has only a few local cell numbers, but appear all too enticing for those visiting Nepal, not to ignore for the sheer heck of it in having a night out with a local woman. Sarala´s story might be unknown to them, but this is where the sad connection starts unfurling, evident in the feminization of HIV/AIDS figures for Nepal, the innocent tourist out spot where the vanquished Nepali commercial sex workers all females, are exploited to the full monetarily and physically.
Walking through Thamel is like walking through a gizmo of snakes and ladders, dodging the drug dealers, the crazy bicyclists who might grab your bag if you are not careful, fellow obnoxious travelers, some high on hashish, the street magicians and snake charmers all rolled into one, the miracle astrologer forecasting your good Karma behind and your bad days ahead unless you bought off him a US$ 50 amulet, and the road side flute player enticing you with a Bob Dylan tune. Amidst this Eastern charm mixed with Western adventurism, reminiscent of a temple scene in Seven Years in Tibet, Thamel has within its hidden gullies anywhere between 200-350 massage parlors and sex joints.
Thamel area itself is only around two square kilometers but it could take you at least a week to discover it properly. Tourists did not deny visiting these hidden massage parlors ten years back, but in coming back to Kathmandu for the umpteenth time. They are now alarmed to see Nepali commercial sex traders and their foreign counterparts openly boasting their connections with young petite Nepalese women wearing flashy saris, enticing the tourists from second floor windows at every street corner, along with others working in the mushrooming cabin restaurant business meant for Nepalis and foreigners alike (akin to a sleazy Pat pong joint from Thailand). Thamel also abounds with nude dance clubs, a wide array of curio shops, drug packers, and exotic restaurants that serve some of the world´s most authentic haute cuisine assortments.
The Thamel Tourism Board founded by leading Thamel tourism entrepreneurs Karna Shakya and Yogendra Shakya from the famed Kathamndu Guest House, and Tejendra Shrestha, a major restaurant chain owner, is now converted into the Thamel Tourism Development Council, which only recently introduced a new ban on vehicular traffic plying along its narrow gully roads. However this has allowed unfettered human traffic to replace it. This is good news for the Thamel entrepreneurs because more humans mean more business, more customers too for the massage parlor joints, according to Jose.
Thamel indeed serves as the capital of Nepal´s commercial sex tourism. Every year nearly 6,000 Nepalese women are lured into Nepal´s commercial sex industry here, thereby slowly entering the rest of Kathmandu, Nepal and rest of the world. If the girl´s Karma is good, as Sarala reckons, she might even marry a foreign husband and be able to leave the Nepalese misery and poverty behind for good. However, most operating within the Nepali commercial sex trade are part of a global racket that also includes cross-border human traffickers working across many Asian borders, often forcing the girls into dangerous, dirty and unwanted jobs.
Additionally every year 8,000 to 10,000 Nepalese women are innocently enticed into the Indian commercial sex market with the promise of jobs and later on forced into commercial sex occupation in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and New Delhi. These Nepalese women hardly get any income, their life is one of bondage and servitude to one of the numerous Indian havelis (brothel houses), their names are changed and soon they will lose their cultural identity as well. The families too are left behind in total hopelessness and anxiety, the only remaining legacy being hope that they will come back one day soon.
And, besides, another 40,000 Nepalese women are going abroad by air each year mostly filling unskilled labor quotas in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong,, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Palestine and Jordan as house maids and female domestic workers. Nepal´s labor market in certain destinations such as the UAE, Qatar, Malaysia and South Korea are now legalized, thus somewhat helping to stem the flow of unskilled, illegal workers, but this does not stop the flow of globally trafficked Nepalese women lured into commercial sex work elsewhere.
Many of these Nepalese girls are quickly exploited on the job, and the average money they repatriate back home every month is only around US$ 300-350, which is still a large sum of money in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world. Sarala only wishes that she could be one of them going abroad to work, on a huge jet airplane, instead of leading this abject life in Nepal where she has to toil day and night selling her body for her family´s survival. A massage parlor girl in Nepal makes through her bonded labor only around one twentieth the actual amounts the business owner makes in hiring her, which is not enough for her family to survive. Many like Sarala thus have to take side employment as cabin restaurant attendants, bar singers, dancers and dish washers in other neighboring tea stalls.
The Nepal Government does not seem to have sufficient regulations to control the burgeoning commercial sex tourism in Thamel and other sprouting locations around Kathmandu. The police officers often are in cahoots with the commercial sex operators charging hefty commissions to turn their heads the other way round. Many media stories have appeared in Nepal and the American media on this nexus between some corrupt Nepalese police officials and the commercial sex tourism operators, but at the moment, no one is able to do anything in the absence of a legitimate national government in Nepal.
In fact, the entire 28 kilometer Ring Road around Kathmandu is surrounded by sleazy cabin restaurants and sex joints full of young innocent girls like Sarala enticed into commercial sex work in the promise of better work. There is a known strong nexus and interchange in the placement of the girls working in Thamel and those operating around the periphery of Kathmandu, since the business operators usually happen to be running half a dozen massage parlors within the valley at any given time, constantly shifting their base of operations. This, in turn, leads to an unchecked migration of HIV/AIDS carriers spreading infections further among the younger, vulnerable population aged between 19-39 years.
In the past 15 years, the American government through USAID has been doing notable work, leading an aggressive drive against HIV/AIDS spread in Nepal. America in fact is the lead donor country trying to stop the further spread of HIV/AIDS in Nepal and has been seriously investigating the plight of sex workers and also trying to educate clients on the concept of safer sex and possible abstinence.
Although HIV/AIDS in the general population is low in Nepal, estimated at less than 0.7 percent of the general population, it poses a concentric threat in Thamel (as much as 18% among commercial sex workers) making it imperative that stronger behavior change interventions be introduced rapidly. The Nepal Government, as early as 1992, introduced the first medium-term plan for AIDS prevention and control which was implemented with gusto, but lacked the built-in multi sector linkages such as the tourism growth connection. In fact, screening blood samples, surveillance, generation of sentinel information and data, education and communication materials development for the general public and high risk groups were all initiated with American funding in the past decade. But this has not helped blot out a high risk of infection, the orderly distribution and promotion of condoms, case treatment of STIs, counseling those at risk and those already infected with HIV, and spreading the gospel of HIV/AIDS prevention among the general youth population which seems to be a bit careless in the use of condoms.
Nevertheless, despite these global obstacles created by the surge of Nepalese tourism, the American government through USAID has been working with its European partners and the UN trying to prevent the trafficking of Nepalese women to India, fostering local capacity building among Nepalese NGOs, promoting safe condom use, and increasing the capacity of locally run community based organizations to tackle the problem head-on. However, in Thamel there are increasing numbers of injecting drug users, and seasonal and long term migrant women who also come for some extra money which makes it difficult to deny the long term interlinkages between HIV/AIDS and how it affects now grown-up women such as Sarala who have seen it all first hand, and would choose to lead a different life. Some of Sarala´s best friends have died due to AIDS related illnesses.
According to Nepal´s health experts, this all makes it a difficult and complex task in further reducing the feminization of HIV/ AIDS in Nepal due to the increasing number of sex tourism operators from the Asian region who finds Thamel in Kathmandu valley too attractive to simply ignore for their flourishing business. The big question is: when will the Nepal Government wake up to the threat of HIV/AIDS threatening its women population as a result of the tourism boom, before it gets too late?