Time to tap potential of religious tourism
It is good to see that tourism has been attracting great attention in recent times and the current month saw a special emphasis on promoting the Gandhara heritage which can be gauged from various events held this month so far.
Recently, the Vesak Day Event was held which showcased our homeland’s rich Gandhara heritage, which if brought to the real limelight can attract a record number of world tourists and can fetch us a valuable foreign exchange from the international tourisms.
Again, on May 26 (yesterday), the Gandhara Tourism Task Force formed by the current coalition government, came up with programmes to celebrate the birth anniversary of Gautama Buddha, the messenger of peace who was born in our region. The venue of the programme was the Islamabad Museum and the main force behind the event was Chairman of the Task Force, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who while presiding over the meeting earlier, had expressed that the land of the present Pakistan is the Putra Dharti (holy land) for the followers of the various religions of the subcontinent, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The ancient Gandhara civilization of more than two thousand years is a mirror of the great past of Buddhism, which has its roots from the first century AD to the seventh century. Devotees of Dharma and Jainism also enjoyed complete religious freedom. The Gandhara period reflects the traditional tolerance, religious tolerance and brotherhood of our society. Stupas and religious sites are there.
The good thing is that all the members of the Task Force on Gandhara Tourism are united on their mission and agree with the Chariman that they should come up with an urgent road map focusing on Buddhist tourism on an urgent basis so that the Federal and Provincial Governments can get the historical Gandhara period established. For this the Task Force can ensure steps so that the GOvt can be persuaded to take concrete steps to promote tourism of holy places of various religions in the country.
The followers of the Gautama Buddha, paying tributes to Buddha on the occasion said that about two and a half thousand years ago, in the royal family of a Himalayan state in our region, a child opened his eyes, upon the birth of which astrologers predicted that this child will grow up to be a great king or a great sadhu, his name will be taken with respect. This child became known in history as Gautama Buddha, who said goodbye to comfort and adornment forever and founded Buddhism in order to find the true purpose of life.
Buddha's birthday is celebrated in most of the Buddhist-majority countries of Asia, including Nepal, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, etc. A large number of Buddhist tourists from these countries are interested in visiting the Gandhara civilization monuments located in Pakistan, as well as Russia, America. , Canada, Australia and also the Buddhist followers living in Western countries wish to visit the Stupa and other holy places of Buddha established in Pakistan for centuries.
We are very happy to know that PTDC has identified as many as 38 Gandhara sites across the country. Generally, the Gandhara civilization is associated with the northern regions of Pakistan but the information available from the map provided by PTDC is surprising to all of us.
The holy stupas of Buddha are also present in Sindh province, the Karakoram highway is considered a wonder of the modern age to bring Pakistan and neighboring friendly country China closer by land. Workers sacrificed their lives, for centuries travelers have been passing through the paths between the high mountains and rocky cliffs of the Himalayas, here there are various inscriptions written and illustrated in ancient script on the rocky rocks to express devotion to Gautama Buddha. The Kargah Buddha carved in the 7th century on a fifty-foot high rock in Gilgit-Baltistan is a place of devotion for Buddhist followers around the world. If we succeed in protecting the sacred ancient heritage of Gandhara, not only Pakistan can become an attractive tourist country in the eyes of international tourists, but also the flourishing extremism in our society can be eradicated, PM Task Force said in this regard.
The dwindling foreign exchange reserves have worried the government's economists and they are looking for ways and means to help Pakistan manage its economy. In this regard, the promotion of tourism is also the center of attention.
The religious sites are a special center of attraction for foreign tourists. Paying attention to them can earn valuable foreign exchange. The government should make a regular action plan for the promotion of tourism and implement it.
This will also earn foreign exchange and help in the recovery of the country's economy.
It is high time, both the federal and the provincial governments should form a joint strategy marked by tremendous determination to uplift the road infrastructure and enhance the hospitality sector with main focus on security of the tourists besides making the visa procedures for visitors as simple and snag free with special emphasis on the safety and security factor and also ensuring the visitors health and hygiene factor as without ensuring such steps, visitors will think twice before embarking on visit to any place on the earth. Analysts say that if developed on modern lines, this industry may contribute enormously to the national exchequer, in fact it can make for over 40 per cent to Gross Domestic Product. They quoted the example of Switzeland which earns around $80 billion annually from this sector which is more than double of what we earn from our total export of $25 billion in an year. In this way, it needs to be given extra attention, more than what we give to our export sector. The reality is that Pak tourism sector has great potential as recognized by the UN Tourism agency as well and has also featured in research articles pertaining to its scope for promotion in international tourism journals which have shed light on how it can be developed on modern lines and made feasible for the international visitors.
There is a need for exploring the rich Gandhara heritage of Pakistan and other religious sites to exhibit the cultural diversity, inter-faith harmony, and peace through religious tourism in the country. For this we also need international support as our country together with the world support can preserve and promote its ancient Buddhist heritage and other religious sites and heritage sites, which is need of the hour.
Published in The Daily National Courier, May, 27 2023