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12 Jan, 2004

Buddhist Circuit On The Rise

The Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, one of the world’s most promising itineraries, is one of two priority themes under a tourism plan to be developed for Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

In this dispatch:

1. BUDDHIST CIRCUIT ON THE RISE: The Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, one of the world’s most promising itineraries, is one of two priority themes under a tourism plan to be developed for Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

2. LAOS TO HOST FIRST GMS TOURISM FORUM: Tourism development in the Greater Mekong Subregion is set to take another leap forward next month when Laos hosts its first ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF), the region’s foremost travel trade show.

3. CELEBRATING A ‘GRAIN OF GOLD’ : 2004 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Rice. Worldwide, rice is more than a food. It is society, culture, politics, business, the beauty of the landscape, people in their communities. In short, rice is life. The travel & tourism industry, a major consumer of rice, can help make the year a success.



    The Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, one of the world’s most promising itineraries, has taken a huge step forward after being cleared as one of two priority themes under a tourism development plan for Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal to be funded by the Asian Development Bank. The US$ 450,000 package is expected to set in a motion a process that will facilitate transportation linkages and attract long overdue infrastructure investment in some of the world’s holiest spots.

    With the search for spirituality on the rise in a world full of stress and conflict, the Buddhist pilgrimage sites are awaiting visits by millions of Buddhists worldwide, especially in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China. The two primary sites are Lumbini in Nepal, where the Buddha was born and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Bodhgaya in India, where he attained enlightenment.

    A typical 10-day of the Buddhist circuit would begin in Kathmandu and cover Pokhara, Bhairava and Lumbini, cross the border to India (which is only about 5-6 kms from Lumbini) for visits to Kushinagar, Patna, Nalanda, Rajgir, Bodhgaya and Varanasi before flying on to either Delhi or Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) for the international connection.

    These spots have suffered from years of neglect, and lack of funding. The first international flights to Bodhgaya only began in November 2002 with a flight from Sri Lanka. Air India briefly operated flights from Bangkok and then suspended them. Roads are bad and accommodation consists mainly of youth hostels, guest-houses and lodges, though many pilgrims stay in the meditation centres and temples. Lumbini is 45 minutes flight away from Kathmandu with equally spartan facilities, though some improvements have been made in recent years.

    Much is now likely to change with the prioritisation of Buddhist circuit by the national tourism representatives of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. The directions of the ADB-funded plan will be charted by a tourism working group (TWG) under the South Asia Subregional Economic Programme (SASEC), designed to transform the area into a dynamic region with high growth leading to rapid reduction of poverty. Other infrastructure projects under SASEC include electricity projects and Information and Communications Technology. The ADB is providing specific funding a number of critical roads designed to link the four countries and provide landlocked Nepal and Butan with access to ports in India and Bangladesh.

    These infrastructure projects fit in well with plans to upgrade the Buddhist circuit which for years has never gone beyond the talking stage at various national and regional levels, due to lack of funding. Two other subregional groupings, Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) and the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) have also identified Buddhist tourism circuits as a priority area for cooperation.

    The GMS countries comprise of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China (its southern Province of Yunnan). Buddhism is at the heart of these countries’ cultures, and they abound with festivals, temples, meditation centres and places of learning. Their transport and accommodation infrastructure is well ahead of South Asia. By helping to develop the Buddhist circuit in South Asia, the prospects of linking South and Southeast Asia via common cultural and religious themes holds out tremendous promise.

    In November 2001, the Japanese government funded the first major international seminar on promotion of the Buddhist circuit organised by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (UN ESCAP). Presentations at the seminar (http://www.unescap.org/ttd/index.asp) indicated enormous potential for the Buddhist circuit “as a way to give tourists and local people a better understanding of the Buddhist heritage, strengthen regional cooperation and contribute to sustainable social and economic development.”

    At the same time, individual country presentations showed up the constraints. Many of the Buddhist sites are far from the traditional ‘tourist’ centres. Others, such as in Bhutan, are restricted because of their extremely sacred nature. The Indian sites need landscaping, roads, health and municipal services.

    The most important development issue, however, will be to ensure that the Buddhism’s central philosophy of the “middle path” itself is followed. Indeed, the Bhutanese presentation at the ESCAP seminar asked the critical question: “To what extent can Buddhist tourism be developed, managed and promoted without diluting the sanctity and sacredness of the festivals and religious establishments? The issue of commercializing religion emerges as most important.” The presentation added, “There are no easy answers and to adopt a ‘middle path’ is easier said than done.”

    The Buddhist circuit is one of two priority themes identified in the SASEC tourism development plan, the other being ecotourism based on the natural and cultural heritage of the subregion. The overall plan will build upon existing master plans in the four countries. The process of designing and formulating it has been made considerably easier because it will closely follow an identical planning project carried out, with ADB funding, in the GMS countries since 1993.

    The GMS is now one of the world’s fastest growing tourism regions. According to Mrs Snimer Sahni, an ADB Senior Project Economist, the GMS experience “has illustrated tourism’s great potential as a sector for subregional cooperation. The (SASEC) subregion can offer activities such as overland cultural tours and mountain trekking. Aside from bringing in foreign exchange, creating jobs, and contributing to overall economic growth, this kind of tourism promotes rural development.” She said, “The TWG is aware of the potential for a similar South Asia region.”

    Mrs Sahni noted that one significant hurdle is the lack of a subregional perspective in tourism planning in South Asia. “Until now, no one has had reason to look beyond national borders to identify patterns of tourism in the subregion and the potential to influence and enhance them. A subregional view of tourism plans in the four countries is required, drawing comparisons across borders and identifying opportunities for joint development and marketing of shared resources.” She added, “By working together, these countries may find that as with the GMS experience, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

    The ADB also plans to draw upon its experience of ecotourism development work in Nepal, focusing on community-based tourism to help reduce poverty and conserve the natural and cultural heritage. According to the ADB, these projects have helped boost employment, although seasonal; increased community capacity to manage small enterprises; increased food production due to additional tourist demand; and improved maintenance of local infrastructure (e.g., campsites and trails) through community participation.

    The ADB’s approach has combined improving airport infrastructure in remote Nepalese rural areas with using locally developed training techniques to enable villagers to benefit from the resulting increased tourist flows. Mrs Sahi says that opportunities for this type of approach occur throughout the SASEC subregion.

    The SASEC tourism plan is expected to be finished by June 2004 and cover the period 2004 to 2014. The consultant appointed to prepare the plan will work with the tourism industry’s public and private sectors and other stakeholders in developing a framework program and project concepts. National workshops will be later held in each of the countries at which other issues and specific project ideas related to marketing, infrastructure and human resource development, facilitation of travel and financing will be covered.

    The news is already being warmly welcomed. ESCAP’s Transport and Tourism Division chief Barry Cable said, “This is excellent news. It will certainly go a long way towards attracting interest in investment in this very important part of the world. I hope local authorities will ensure that they develop the right kind of products in line with the sense of place.”

    The announcement comes hot on the heels of the recent South Asian Area Regional Cooperation summit and is expected to dovetail perfectly with South Asia’s plans to hold a South Asian Tourism Year in 2005. Eventually, the SASEC countries are looking into the possibility of holding the first SASEC Tourism Forum and establishing a SASEC Tourism Secretariat.



      Tourism development in the Greater Mekong Subregion is set to take another leap forward next month when Laos hosts its first ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF), the region’s foremost travel trade show. After some initial hesitation about whether it had the necessary infrastructure to handle it, the Laos government decided to go ahead, especially as it became a question of losing face vis a vis another least developed country, Cambodia, which hosted a highly successful ATF in 2003.

      The event, held annually since its inauguration in Malaysia in 1981, will be held from January 30 to February 7, bringing together an estimated 1,500 delegates. The event is being managed by Navitas Management Pte Ltd, a fully owned subsidiary of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS).

      Mr. Somsavat Lengsavad, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister who also chairs the National ATF 2004 Organising Committee, considers the ATF the most significant international event to be held in Laos since the 2001 ASEAN-EU Meeting. He says it will prepare Laos for another even bigger event to come, the 10th ASEAN Summit later this year, also hosted by Cambodia in 2002.

      Laos has built a special International Trade Exhibition and Convention Centre to host the ATF Travex. US$ 7.5 million is being spent on the centre which was due for completion last November. The ITECC has a total area of 31,000 square metres and consists of a 5,400 sq m hall and smaller meeting rooms. It also has eight 1,200 sq m conference rooms and 1,000-vehicle car park.

      Of the 400 booths available at the Travex, 120 have been taken up by exhibitors from Thailand, 69 from Singapore, 50 from Indonesia, 50 from Malaysia, 28 from Vietnam and 14 from Laos. Organisers are projecting 275 buyers from 38 countries including 49 from ASEAN countries and 113 from Europe, the United States, Japan and China. Also expected are 48 travel writers and journalists from 25 countries.

      In 1988, the first year Laos opened its doors to visitors, arrivals totalled 600 and rose to 2,600 in 1989. Ten years later, 1999-2000, Laos felt confident enough to organise its first Visit Laos Year. Arrivals have risen from more than 600,000 in 1999 to over 730,000 in 2002, and revenues from US$ 97.2 million to US$ 113.8 million in the same period. However, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) reports that arrivals to Laos in the first quarter of 2003 fell 14.8% to 183,660 as the country got hit by the same factors that affected regional tourism, the fallout from both SARS and the Iraq conflict;

      Laos’s tourism development plans are being closely supported by regional groups like the UN Economic Social Commission for Asia-Pacific, the Asian Development Bank and PATA. The ADB in 2002 gave a loan of US$10.9 million to Laos under its Mekong Tourism Development Project. The money will go for upgrading Luang Namtha Airport in the north, near the border with China and Burma; the access road to the spectacular Konglor Cave in Thamuan Province; and the access road to the Kwangsi Waterfall, near Luang Prabang.

      ESCAP is coordinating the development of a number of highways designed to give Laos access to ports in Thailand and Vietnam. In turn, PATA is the organiser of the annual Mekong Tourism Forum, first held in Thailand in April 1996 and to be held for the first time in Chiang Mai this March 26-28, 2004. While tourism to Vientiane is already well developed, by dint of the Australian-funded Friendship Bridge, the first across the Mekong river, the Lao government is now turning its attention to promoting access to its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites — the former capital of Luang Prabang and Wat Phou Champassak.

      Luang Prabang is becoming increasingly accessible by dint of direct flights (both THAI Airways and PB Air now fly direct from Bangkok to Luang Prabang), and access to the southwestern province of Champassak has been facilitated by the Japanese-funded bridge from Pakse which opened in 2000.

      Of the total visitors to Laos in 2002, a total of 417,320 came over the Friendship Bridge from Thailand with 39,720 through the Champassak border checkpoint. Arrivals at other checkpoints are also rising, with 45,489 arrivals at the Houixay checkpoint and 75,461 at Savannakhet. These overland border-crossings are by far the most important sources of visitor arrivals than Laos’ three international airports.

      The ATF theme, “ASEAN : The New Tourism Landscape”, will also be reflected in the content of the ministerial meetings. European funding, which gave ASEAN tourism a major push in the 1980s and 1990s, has disappeared entirely, leaving ASEAN to consolidate its partnership with its most important sources of future visitor arrivals — intra-ASEAN, India, China, Japan and Korea.

      The ATF will also give a major boost to Thailand’s plans for development of both northeast and north Thailand, especially Chiang Mai as a northern aviation hub.



        2004 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Rice. The travel & tourism industry, a major consumer of rice, can do a lot to help make the year a success.

        Almost 3,000 million people share the culture, traditions, and untapped potentials of rice. In remote villages of southeast Asia, farmers still compare a grain of rice to a “grain of gold”. In modern Japan, people see rice as the very heart of their culture. Along the Senegal River in West Africa, villagers greet guests with specially prepared rice dishes.

        Wherever rice is grown – in the deltas and valleys of Asia’s major rivers, on the slopes of the Himalayas, in Africa’s tropical rainforests or on dry lands in the Middle East – rice enters people’s lives as a daily food, at religious festivals and wedding parties, in paintings and in songs. Even in nations “new to rice”, cultivation of the crop has changed landscapes, introduced new cuisine, and provided farmers with new sources of income.

        So, rice is a food – but more than a food. It is society, culture, politics, business, the beauty of the landscape, people in their communities. In short, rice is life. For details and ideas on how to help make the year a success, log on to http://www.fao.org/rice2004/index_en.htm


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