Notwithstanding Lumbini and many other prominent Buddhist pilgrimage sites, Nepal has not been able to tap such resources fully for boosting her tourism industry. Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, and other nearby areas such as Tilaurakot Palace, Kudan, Taulihawa, Niglihawa, Gotihawa, Araurakot and Ramgram are very important in terms of Buddhist tourism, culture and heritage. It needs no reiteration that Lumbini is looked upon by Buddhists from around the world as a sacred place like Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem for Christians. But owing to a lack of effective promotion and marketing of such an unrivalled destination in the target market and necessary tourism infrastructures, Lumbini still appears to have fallen in the shadow.
However, Lumbini now possesses a newly-built international airport along with many posh hotels. Nearly one year has elapsed since the Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) came into operation. But the airport has hardly been able to attract numerous international airlines as expected. Only Kuwait-based Jazeera Airways now operates flights to and from this airport. When construction of GBIA began back in 2014, tourism entrepreneurs had hoped that the new aviation infrastructure would turn out to be a game changer in regard to the entire region’s socio-economic development.
Looking at immense prospects of tourism growth, they have made huge investments in this multifaceted industry and other service sectors in Lumbini and adjoining areas. Nonetheless, with the lingering COVID-19, and the inability on the part of the government authorities to bring the airport in operation in full swing, they have now been concerned about their investments. The problem has now been exacerbated with a liquidity crunch and subsequent increase in bank interest rates.
Amidst such a situation, efforts are still being made to highlight Lumbini as a most sought-after destination for Buddhist pilgrims from across the world as well as other travellers showing their interest in history, culture and religion. Over the years, tourism stakeholders of the nation have come forward with an idea to organise a Buddhist International Travel Market (BITM) in Lumbini every year. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA), the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), Lumbini Development Trust and Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents (NATTA) have joined hands to organise BITM-2023 in Lumbini. Scheduled to be held this week (May 11-13), it will be the second travel mart of its kind after 2019. The event could not be held for three years in row beginning from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being organised with the theme “Explore the Buddhaland: A Gateway to Buddhist Circuits”, the BITM is bringing people together to support inbound, outbound, and domestic tourism activities in Lumbini. It also offers unlimited opportunities for tourism stakeholders to explore the market and publicise their destination or product in one place.
With this travel mart, the organisers aim to promote Lumbini and other Buddhist heritage sites within the nation. They also intend to enable Nepali tourism entrepreneurs to sell Buddhist tour packages in the global tourism market. Besides, the event will send a message to the outside world that Nepal is a hub for global peace as well. Pramod Dahal, senior vice president of NATTA, hopes that the event will be instrumental in promoting Nepal as an important Buddhist tourist destination worldwide.
"We are confident that the event will play a key role in promoting Lumbini and other Buddhist sites of the country and spread the message that the country is the centre for world peace and gateway to the Buddhist Circuits," says Dahal, who is also the member secretary of the BITM-2023 main organising committee.
The event will be invaluable in the sense that tour operators from different parts of the world are going to share their ideas regarding the promotion of Buddhist tourism. The participants will also have an opportunity to showcase various important Buddhist pilgrimage sites and heritages found in their respective nations at the mart. Another facet of the event is that they will be taking part in B2B sessions. Thus, this gathering may be helpful for enhancing their business relationship. The mart may help contribute towards developing Nepal as a niche market for Buddhist pilgrimage.
Nepal and India boast key Buddhist Circuits. These circuits are a route that runs through the footsteps of Lord Buddha from Lumbini where he was born. The path also passes through Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar in India. The Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, delivered his first sermon in Sarnath while he got Mahaparinirvan in Kushinagar. It is remarkable that the famed route incorporates such places where the Buddha spent much time, vital sites and memorials. Another significance of these monuments is that they have remained popular for well over 2,500 years.
There are also a number of Buddhist monuments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar and some other nations. Buddhist tourism may expand and grow considerably once these countries are also linked to the Buddhist Circuit map. Nepal could attract more Buddhist pilgrims from these nations by establishing air connectivity with them.
Since accessibility is vital for highlighting any destination, it is essential for the government to promote and market the GBIA in order to lure more foreign international carriers. One of the obstacles facing this airport is that its Instrument Landing System (ILS) has not been in operation. For this, Nepal needs to receive permission from India as the airport is close to the southern neighbour. What is another issue with GBIA is that India has yet to provide entry routes to Bhairahawa. It takes about 10 minutes more for flights bound for Bhairahawa while arriving through Simara.
This is the reason why foreign airlines prefer Kathmandu over Bhairahawa. Longer routes result in increased operating costs for airlines. Because the new airport may not be come into full operation without settling the issues related to the operation of ILS, and entry routes, Nepal should take India into confidence and resolve them once and for all.
(The author is a deputy executive editor of this daily.)