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10 May, 2011

Buddhist Scholar’s Point-Blank Pitch: Visit India to Walk the Talk

BANGKOK – An eminent Buddhist scholar accompanying an Indian tourism promotion delegation has called on the millions of Buddhists in Thailand and worldwide to visit India both to encourage the revival of Buddhism in the Hindu-majority country as well as to retrace the Buddha’s footsteps to gain a more personal experience of his teachings.

The point-blank appeal was made by Mr. Shantum Seth, a prominent member of a 19-strong Indian delegation during a May 9-13 roadshow of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Addressing a packed hall of invited Thai travel agents after a visit earlier in the day to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Thai capital’s most visited tourist attractions, Mr Seth said he could feel an immediate connection to the people of Thailand and the atmosphere he experienced. “With the devotion that people have, you must visit these places (the Buddhist sites in India). If you die without visiting these places, you will have missed something very important in your life. It’s like going on the Hajj.”

Led by Mr. Anand Kumar, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism, the Indian tourism delegation also included Mr. Rakesh Tandon, managing director of the Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation, Mr. Arjun Sharma, Senior Vice President of the Indian Association of Tour Operators and 16 other delegates, representing the private sector and some Indian states. In Thailand, the roadshow attracted one of the largest such turnouts ever seen by this editor at an outbound travel promotion.

Outbound travel from Thailand is on the rise, thanks to the strength of the Thai baht, a huge increase in airline seat capacity and stepped up marketing efforts by foreign NTOs and airlines. Buddhism being a common religious thread that binds all three countries, the Indians opted to use this heritage link as a primary marketing pitch to attract a long-staying, high-spending captive market. If it produces the desired results, the roadshow will give a huge impetus to global religious travel and raise it to a new level beyond the current health-and-wellness fad.

First Indian Roadshow to Cambodia, Vietnam

Although Indian tourism promotion events are regularly held in Thailand, this was first Indian roadshow to Vietnam and Cambodia, which are now on the list of 11 countries (Singapore, Finland, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Japan, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippine, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia) whose citizens can now get an Indian visa on arrival. Although Thais don’t get a VoA, Thailand was included in the inaugural promotional trip because of the nearly 140 weekly flights between Thailand-India. This is generating roughly 800,000 Indians visitors to Thailand every year but only 70,000 Thai visitors for India. The Indians felt the time is right to try to narrow this gap.

According to Mr. Kumar, “India sees immense potential in the ASEAN source markets due to geographical proximity, age-old ties and Buddhist affinity. Due to India’s strong and vibrant economy and an increasingly favourable business climate, India has established a firm place on the world map. Tourism is growing at a rate of around 10% an the country has become a preferred business, leisure, adventure and spiritual destination.”

The Buddhist market is considered the easiest to tap — a clearly-demarcated sector and well-suited to global demographic trends, especially the rapidly-growing elderly segment of the population.

Mr. Seth said Buddhism originated in India and then spread across Southeast Asia as Gautama Buddha over the span of 45 years preached his message of peace, compassion and the Noble Eightfold Path as the antidote to suffering to everyone from beggars to kings. India lost Buddhism in the 13th century but if Thais can start visiting the Buddhist spots now, they can contribute to a revival of the religion in India, he said. “The teachings come alive to you. They make sense and gain relevance in the modern context,” he added, noting that that the Buddha himself had told his followers and disciples to visit the places where he was born, attained enlightenment, meditated, preached and died.

Mr Seth also called on the Thai travel agents to send their guests to other historic places such as the Hindu holy city of Varanasi (Benares), so that they may understand the origins of Buddhism. He said they will find many of the spots exactly the same as they were. “Not much of India has changed over the years,” Mr. Seth said, urging them to travel as a “Sangha, a committee of practitioners” and undertake the pilgrimage as “both an inner and outer journey.”

Mr. Seth was followed by Mr. Tandon who gave a video presentation of the Mahaparinirvan Express, the eight-day special train journey through the Buddhist spots. A total of 16 fixed-date departures are planned between 17 September 2011 to 01 May 2012. Mr. Arun Srivastava, Joint General Manager (Tourism), ICRTC, said that nearly 50% of the train’s clients are up-market Thais. He said all the trips combined have a seat capacity of about 3,000 with an occupancy of about 2,000. Of that, he said, half are Thais. In March alone, a group of 400 had come from Thailand, requiring the train to add a number of extra coaches for the one-week trip.

The entertainment that followed the presentations also bore a Buddhist theme with a series of dances depicting tales of various spirits and demons in Buddhist mythology. Said Mr. Bansri Kaul, the show director, “We chose these dances from Ladakh, the last Mahayana Buddhist monasteries in India, because they reflected the internal energy of India. It was not one of the animated and high-power performances that one normally sees at Indian performances. We thought it would be good to do something different.”

One delegation member said it was also important as part of India’s “inclusive development” policies to give cultural troupes from the more remote parts of India a chance to travel abroad. Indeed, many of the troupe members had facial features distinctly like those of the hilltribes people of Thailand and the Mekong Region, and wore remarkably similar costumes too. Although a brochure explaining each dance was deposited on the chairs, it was all in English. As there was no Thai explanation, many of the non-English speaking audience were visibly disinterested. The Indians recognised the apparent boredom, and promised to fix the problem at the next stop, Vietnam.

The Key Reason

In his presentation, Mr. Sharma urged Thai agents to work only with IATO-registered membership agents in order to avoid being taken for a ride by the many fly-by-night operators who have joined the Indian tourism bandwagon, thanks to what he called the relatively relaxed government licensing procedures. His presentation balanced the Buddhist focus by highlighting the many other facets of India – off-season tourism, voluntourism, adventure tourism and even an opportunity to meet with India’s former royal families at the many palace hotels in the country. For the many foreign-educated Thais with a fondness for skiing, he pitched India as the “nearest short-haul winter holiday”. He also noted that with the low-cost airlines having put in a deluge of capacity on the Thailand-India route (about 140 flights a week), the time was right to start filling seats in both directions.

Asked in an interview why India had chosen Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, Mr Sharma said, “The key reason is that the visa on arrival for both Vietnam and Cambodia is in place. This part of the ASEAN region has been neglected by tourism India. The focus has been mainly on Buddhist tourism, and while we are continuing to pursue that, we are also offering other products of India. My own company (Le Passage to India) has recently handled some very high-end travellers from both countries. They are small groups of delegations and families but they are buying luxury products. That clearly shows the future potential.”

MICE and sports tourism would also be a big winner, he said, especially an upcoming Formula 1 racing spectacular in New Delhi. “The Indian government now realises the need to diversify the portfolio of tourism products and sports tourism will be one of the key products going forward,” Mr Sharma said.

Mr Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, the Indian Ambassador to Thailand, said that Thailand and India share long cultural and heritage links, noting that the name of Thailand’s King Bhumibhol Adulyadej came directly from its Sanskrit origin, as did Suvarnabhumi, the name of Bangkok’s international airport. He acknowledged calls for Thailand to be included on the list of visa-on-arrival countries but noted that the number of countries would be expanded as more infrastructure began to be put into place to manage its growth. He said Thai companies, especially construction firms, were active in India’s infrastructure development, with one local conglomerate Italthai Corporation, building a new airport at Kolkata. Total bilateral trade is now almost 7 billion dollars, and growing.