NEW DELHI — India is tapping the potential of its rich Buddhist heritage by wooing more tourists from East and South East Asian countries. Buddhism originated in India but went on to gain more popularity in other Asian countries.
From a rail station in New Delhi the luxury train, the Mahaparinirvan Express, begins its winding, eight-day journey through three Indian states -- Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa.
The passengers on board include a group of tourists from Thailand, who are greeted with garlands and music. At daytime, the train stops at some of Buddhism’s most sacred sites such as Bodh Gaya where Buddha obtained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon, Varanasi, where he preached and Kusinagar, where he died.
The train is sometimes delayed by dense winter fog, but the visitors from Thailand say they are satisfied with their spiritual encounter.
Buddha began preaching Buddhism in India more than 2,500 years ago. As a result, some of Buddhism’s most sacred sites - places where he lived and preached are located in India -- although the religion went on became more popular elsewhere in Asia.
Many of these holy spots lie in India’s poorest states which were not easy to access for decades. As a result only the most committed religious tourists made the effort to reach the sites, resulting in relatively few foreign visitors.
But in recent years, India has been trying to attract more tourists from countries such with sizeable Buddhist populations such as Japan and Thailand and develop what it calls spiritual tourism.
It has connected key Buddhist heritage sites through a rail network on which the Mahaparinirvan Express plies. And it is trying to improve other infrastructure such as highways and airports for those who want to plan their own visits.
The head of India’s Association of Tour Operators, Subhash Goyal says the process has begun, but much more needs to be done. “In a lot of areas where hotels and other things need to come up and second is road connectivity, and there needs to be air connectivity connecting all these places with small planes or with helicopters," he said. "If the facilities improve and infrastructure improves, I am sure we can have two to three million tourists, just Buddhist tourists coming to India.”
The government recognizes the need to invest more funds to develop what it calls the “Buddhist circuit.”
Tourism Minister, K.Cheeranjivi on a recent visit to Tokyo, said India needs more quality, budget accommodation close to prominent Buddhist sites and called on Japan to invest in the hospitality sector.
It is not just India that is hoping to draw in Buddhist tourists. Passengers aboard the Buddhist pilgrim train are taken via bus across the border to the tiny town of Lumbini in Nepal.
This town, where Gautam Buddha was born, has been getting a makeover for many years to provide amenities for tourists.
Sharad Pradhan at Nepal’s Tourist Board says so far most of the overseas tourists come via India, but they hope to change that. “We have many tourists coming from Sri Lanka also, there are so many tourists coming from Thailand, Japan also. Now the government of Nepal is opening airport at Lumbini," he added. "So that will be complete within two years so that tourists can directly come to Lumbini.”
In India, states rich in Buddhist heritage have begun reaping a dividend from Buddhist tourism. A decade ago, virtually no foreign tourists went to Bihar, which is among India’s poorest and least developed areas, but also the area where most Buddhist sites are located. Today, Bihar hosts nearly half a million overseas visitors.