India is a treasure of religions, philosophies, history and cultures. Buddhism is one such religion and philosophy which started in India and has spread worldwide.
The Buddha trail in India ranges from Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; to Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon; to Nalanda and Rajgir, where he lived, preached and taught; to Shravasti, where he spent 24 rainy seasons and to Kushinagar, where he achieved Mahanirvana. India is undisputedly ‘the land of Buddha’.
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world practiced by around 535 million and representing around 9-10 per cent of the world’s total population. Although Buddhism originated in India, it is more popular in countries outside, with the largest number of followers in China, followed by Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. Cambodia has the highest proportion of followers – 13 million out of its total population of 15 million.
Other countries that have a high percentage of Buddhist residents in their population include Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos and Mongolia. South Korea, Malaysia, Macau, Nepal, Taiwan, Singapore and Hongkong also have a large number of Buddhists.
Buddhism, rather than just a religion, is also a philosophy where teachings and values are affecting the cultural lives of people across the world. Countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, Spain, UK and USA too have been largely influenced by Buddhist teachings, philosophy and values. ‘Buddhist Tourism’ is therefore, of immense value to India because of a large number of followers, even among non-Buddhists who follow it as a philosophy, all over the world.
Buddhist Tourism is one of the strongest USPs of India Tourism with the potential to attract a huge number of international travellers. India is attracting a miniscule number of Buddhist tourists of the total Buddhist population in the world and have not been able to harness its potential so far. Presently, popular Buddhist sites visited by international tourists are Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Nalanda, Kushinagar, Rajgir, Sanchi and Dharamshala. Other significant destinations include Amravati in Andhra Pradesh, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, Udaygiri and Dhaulagiri in Odisha, Gandhola in Himachal Pradesh and Ajanta in Maharashtra.
Sensing the prospects offered by Buddhist Tourism, the Ministry of Tourism (MoT)has taken a number of initiatives in the last decade. To showcase Buddhist heritage and pilgrim sites in India, the Ministry has been organising an ‘International Buddhist Conclave’ every alternate year since 2010 in collaboration with State Governments.
The last conclave was organised in August 2018 at New Delhi and Ajanta in Maharashtra, followed by visits to Rajgir, Nalanda, Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. The Conclave was attended by delegates of 29 countries from all over the world.
To develop world class infrastructure in and around Buddhist Tourism destinations, the MoT has identified a ‘Buddhist Circuit’ as one of the thematic circuits under the Swadesh Darshan Programme. Five projects to the tune of Rs. 362 crores have been sanctioned so far under the Buddhist Circuit.
The projects include Sanchi, Satna, Reva, Mandsaur and Dhar regions in Madhya Pradesh; Shravasti, Kushinagar and Kapilvastu in Uttar Pradesh; Bodh Gaya in Bihar; Junagadh, Gir, Somnath, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Mehsana in Gujarat and Amravati and Shalinundam, Barikonda and Thotlakonda in Andhra Pradesh.
The MoT is in talks with the World Bank and Government of Japan for funding to develop and promote the Buddhist Circuit in the country. It is noteworthy that in 2003, a loan agreement was signed with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for Phase-II of Ajanta Ellora Conservation and Tourism Development Project. Further, the MoT and governments of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) had also entered into an agreement to co-operate in upgrading the quality of services and goods provided for tourists along the Buddhist trail in UP and Bihar.
The New Draft National Tourism Policy also emphasises special focus on development and promotion of the Buddhist Circuit in collaboration with the State Governments and with international bodies, namely World Bank, JICA, International Finance Corporation and Asian Development Bank. The escalation of the Indian Government’s ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ will also go a long way in promoting Buddhist Tourism, with a majority of ASEAN and other Asian countries being the source markets.
While the Union Government and MoT are making every effort to attract Buddhist travellers to India, the following issues need to be addressed on priority, in order to get an increased share of Buddhist travellers:
- Direct air connectivity to Buddhist Circuit destinations from source countries and alternatively from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai airports to improve ease of access
- Improved road and rail connectivity to all the major Buddhist destinations to enhance ease of travel for both international and domestic travellers
- India has lately taken the historic step of ‘opening’ India to international travellers through its liberal ‘e-visa regime’. The Union Government and MoT now need to aggressively propagate and publicise the benefits and virtues of the new policy, particularly in the source countries of Buddhist travellers
- Building world class tourism infrastructure in Buddhist Circuit destinations is a major challenge where the Union Government, State Governments and private sector players have to integrate their efforts. Today, even Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Sanchi, which are the most visited destinations in the Buddhist Circuit, do not have adequate tourism infrastructure, particularly last mile connectivity, good accommodation, toilets, tourist facilitation centres and restaurants
- For better tourist facilitation, these destinations also need foreign language guides, opening of monuments till late evening, better hygienic conditions and adequate safety for tourists
China, with the largest Buddhist population in absolute numbers, can be India’s biggest source market for attracting Buddhist travellers. With India and China sharing historical links from the times of the two devout Buddhists, Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang, it may not be difficult for India to attract Chinese travellers to Buddhist destinations in India. Japan, with the second largest Buddhist population, should also get India’s attention.
Japan and India, today, enjoy a very friendly relationship and both countries are looking forward to tripling the number of tourists in the next five years. On the lines of China and Japan, India needs to formulate a specific plan of action and strategies for each of the major source countries of Buddhist travellers.
Recent studies have shown that travellers across the world still do not consider India as a Buddhist tourist destination country. That India is the real ‘Land of Buddha’ therefore needs to be reinforced in the minds of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist travellers through strategic awareness and promotional campaigns by MoT, the State Governments and the tourism industry.