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India Seeks to Use Buddhist Heritage to Attract Tourists - 2004-02-22


India is trying to encourage more people to visit Buddhist sites in the country as part of what it is calling "spiritual tourism" for Buddhists from around the world.

Buddha first preached in India, but Buddhism became more popular in East Asian countries. As a result, although many sacred Buddhist sites lie in India, they have received scant attention.

India now wants to change that and use the potential of these religious places to attract more overseas Buddhist pilgrims. At a recent conference in New Delhi, hundreds of Buddhist scholars and monks from 22 countries heard about India's plans to acquaint the world more intimately with the "thousands of sign posts" of Buddhism in the country.

As part of this initiative, India is developing tourism infrastructure at prominent Buddhist holy sites.

India's Tourism Minister Jagmohan says these sites will not just be tourist attractions. He says they will be places where pilgrims can meditate and debate, providing opportunities for what he calls "mental rejuvenation and spiritual elevation."

"Our new initiative aims at creating new hubs all over the country, which aims at synthesizing elements of tourism, history, heritage and healthy environment," he said.

The holy sites include Buddhism's most sacred shrine, the Mahabodi temple in Bodhgaya town, where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Many of the Buddhist sites, including the Mahabodi temple, lie in India's most backward and lawless state - the eastern state of Bihar. That has deterred tourists in the past from visiting them.

Among the monks who attended the conference was Thich Quangba from Australia. He says many devotees do not visit the holy sites in India because of lack of convenient air connections and proper infrastructure.

"The condition, road, bridge, car, hotel, grounds and the process of going," said Mr. Quangba. "I believe we could be able to make a lot of improvements."

New Delhi promises to address these problems by providing all amenities needed by tourists at the sites, and improving transportation connections.

Tourism professionals say the concept of "spiritual tourism" has the potential to attract tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, and the plan, if properly implemented, could become a money-maker for the country.

About three million tourists visit India every year - a mere trickle compared to countries such as Thailand and Singapore.