Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Tue August 04 2015

Buddhist Tourism Rising

Destination & Tourism | Pacific Asia Travel Association | James Ruggia | August 04, 2015

Buddhist Tourism Rising

PHOTO: The temples in the Japanese city of Kyoto attract visitors through four seasons of natural beauty framed by Buddhist artists. (Photo by James Ruggia)

One of the best aspects of the growth of new markets in Asia is coming from the impact that the tastes of all of these new travelers will bring to bear on travel for everybody. We can expect the evolution of travel products, experiences and destinations will eventually broaden the experiential tastes of American travelers. The numbers make it clear that these travelers are having a huge impact and it’s only just beginning. Recently the Pacific Asia Travel Association forecasted the growth of Asian outbound travelers to go from 521 million in 2014 to 670 million in 2018, with an average annual growth rate of 6.5 percent. These are big numbers.

Asian travelers have already begun to influence how hotels tailor their services and now destinations are likely to become more prominent that are associated with Asian interests. The very ancient roots of travel come from two main sources: trade and religious pilgrimage. Buddhism has a long tradition of pilgrimage and that spirit is finding its way into Asian outbound tourism. About 400,000 of the world’s 375 million Buddhists live in the U.S., a group that tends to be educated and affluent, and they will also want to see these Buddhist destinations.

Buddha’s Birth Place

Recently  archeologists unearthed a 6th century BCE Buddhist shrine, the earliest ever found, at the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, in the Nepalese town of Lumbini. Lumbini lies near the Indian border on a dusty plain. As the birthplace of the Buddha in 566BCE, Lumbini is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting about 150,000 annual visitors who find only a modest temple, a handful of monasteries and monuments. A partially completed plan to create a sort of vast sanctuary around the site has languished, but is gathering new steam.

Since 1978 there have been plans to develop Lumbini into an area that could attract tourists and pilgrims in numbers more comparable to Mecca, which attracts 2 million pilgrims per year. What Mecca has that Lumbini has not had is a reliable source of investment. Saudi Arabia built the roads, hotels and other infrastructure necessary for Mecca, but Nepal lacks the kind of money that the Saudi Kingdom wields.

If handled well, a big if, the sanctuary could protect the site from the area’s growth in cement factories in the nearby city of Bhairahawa. Though many local voices are calling for a plan, to create a sensitive destination thus far there have been more words than will.

The Lumbini Development Trust was formed in 1985 calling on countries with large Buddhist populations to contribute to developing the site for visitors and to protect the finds of archeologists, the temples and monasteries. They picked up the 1978 master plan for a Peace Park by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who built Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium, the main site for the ‘64 Olympics.

Many countries built temples and shrines including Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, but the hope of a more comprehensive Peace Park with hotels, roads and more has remained elusive as years of Nepalese political instability scared off investors.

Building a Buddhist Tourism

India and Nepal have laid the ground work for the creation of tourist routes in both countries centered on the life of the Buddha. The tourist routes will encompass several sacred sites including Lumbini and the three other holiest sites in Buddhism: Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Kapilavastu. Two circuits have been proposed: one in India featuring such sites as Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, and the others in Nepal include Lumbini and Kapilavastu, where Siddhartha was raised as a young prince. In India, Sarnath, near Varanasi, is where he began teaching the principles of his enlightenment. Bodh Gaya is where he received the enlightenment.

Across Asia there are many Buddhist destinations that are not directly associated with the actual life of the Buddha, but rather the story of Buddhism. Buddhism’s cultural legacy in Asia is almost as powerful as the role Christianity played in the evolution of Europe. There are about 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in eight different Asian countries and many of these are already icons of Asian tourism.

In Japan, the home of Zen Buddhism, the temples and shrines of Nara and Kyoto are already established as international destinations. Recently, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) organized a press trip to some of Japan’s popular destinations and showed how Buddhism created the very foundations of Japanese tourism. Sixteenth century Japanese pilgrims would visit multiple religious sites in one trip.

The remains of those ancient travel patterns are alive today in the Pilgrimage of 88 Temples in Shikoku. The route follows the passage of an eighth-century monk, Kobo Daishi. The head of his school is located in Mount Koya, which is one of the top religious destinations in Japan. The most important pilgrimage destination is the Grand Shrines of Ise, which houses the tutelary gods of Japan since the B.C.E. era.

Over in India, the state of Maharashtra just erected a visitor’s center for two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora are an important stop for passengers on the Deccan Odyssey train, known for their elaborate Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures. The visitor centers are part of a larger project whose goal it is to conserve the monuments and to make the sites more accessible to an increasing number of tourists.

Buddhist Travel Products

The 289-room Shangri-La Hotel, Lhasa sits on a plateau at 12,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by Himalayan peaks, glaciers and desert-like landscapes. The city, the former home of the now exiled Dali Lama, is home to important Tibetan Buddhist sites including the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery and Norbulingka Palace. The hotel is located within walking distance to Potala Palace and Norbulingka Palace.

In Cambodia, in a large park outside of Siem Reap, the Angkor Zen Gardens Retreat Center markets to both MICE delegates as well as tourists with activities, accommodation and meals as well as daily meditation sessions with a Buddhist monk. The retreat is set in a beautifully manicured landscape with lawns, ponds and shade provided by mango, banana and lemon trees. Instructors there teach Tai chi and qigong as well.


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