Branding Buddha’s birthplace

Published On: May 8, 2019 01:30 AM NPT By: Dharma Adhikari and Juyan Zhang

Dharma Adhikari and Juyan Zhang

Dharma Adhikari and Juyan Zhang

Adhikari has been a long-time media columnist with Republica. Currently, he is an associate professor of journalism at Shantou University, China. Zhang is an associate professor of communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio, USA

Buddhist tourism can appeal to a large number of faith-inspired travelers. Branding Nepal as Buddha’s birthplace would help to counter the persisting misinformation that Buddha was born in India

Faith-based tourism has emerged as a significant niche today. The World Tourism Organization says that over 300 million tourists visit religious sites annually. Asia, home to 99 percent of the world’s 450–480 million Buddhists, serves as an example of the resurgence of faith-based tourism.

In India, arrivals from Buddhist countries in 2011 comprised 18 percent of the total of 6.3 million. China’s campaign of ‘building a harmonious society’ has a strong domestic appeal for its 100 million Buddhist followers. South Korea’s ‘temple stay’ program and Thailand’s ‘meditation tourism’ derive inspiration from Buddhism. However, Nepal’s Buddhist tourism potential has barely been tapped.

The current official slogan “Naturally Nepal-Once Is Not Enough” reinforces the image of the country as an ecotourism hub. Incorporating Buddhist tourism into the overall nation-branding campaign would appeal to a large number of faith-inspired travelers. Moreover, branding Nepal as Buddha’s birthplace would help to counter the persisting colonial-era misinformation that Buddha was born in India.

Lumbini is uniquely positioned to become the most important Buddhist holy land just like Jerusalem and Mecca are for Christians and Moslems. On his deathbed, Buddha himself had urged his followers to make pilgrimage to four holy places associated with his life and teachings, and Lumbini, his birthplace, was the first among them. The other sites in that “holy tetrad” of pilgrimage include Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon; and Kushinagar, where he attained parinirvana.

In 2017, tourist arrivals in Nepal reached nearly a million, earning US$ 643 million. The government target is to bring 2.5 million tourists by 2025. Years of political conflict, slow pace of infrastructure development, natural disasters, including the 2015 earthquake, lack of an effective promotional strategy, among others, impair tourism’s prospects.

In this SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis article, we assess the internal and external situations that Nepal faces in successfully planning and implementing a Buddhist tourism campaign.

Strengths and weaknesses 

First, the pilgrimage sites are the main assets. Lumbini is the most hallowed. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes Buddha’s nativity spot, marked by the Ashoka Pillar, inscribed in 249 BCE. The centerpiece is the Mayadevi Temple, adjacent to Puskarni, the sacred pond where Buddha’s mother had bathed before giving birth to Siddhartha. Over the years, several new monasteries and shrines have been erected in this area.

Tilaurakot, some 54 km from Lumbini, is believed to be the capital of the Shakya kingdom, where Buddha spent his childhood and youth. Other archaeological sites include Aurorkot, Devdaha, Gothihawa, Niglihawa, Kudan, Sagarhawa and Ramnagar. The famed Boudhanath and Swayambhunath stupas (UNESCO World Heritage Sites) in Kathmandu also immensely contribute to Nepal’s Buddhist image. The temple of Muktinath, located in Mustang at an altitude of about 3,749 m, is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.

Second, Nepal is a repository of rare Buddhist treasures. The Mahā-parinibbāna Suttanta, from around the fifth century CE, records that, following the cremation, Buddha’s remains were distributed among eight kingdoms of the time. One portion of the relics is believed to have been enshrined in the Ramagram stupa, located some 32 km south-east of Lumbini. The Lumbini Museum and the Kapilvastu Museum exhibit many artifacts. Nepal also has the largest repository of ancient Buddhist Sanskrit literature.

Third, the Himalayan mountains add to the spiritual aura of Nepal. The longest-staying and best-paying tourists in Nepal are trekkers and mountaineers. These mountains and hills, where Tibetan Mahayana tradition is widespread, are dotted with some 3,000 monasteries.

Fourth, Nepal is known for religious and cultural coexistence. The country’s Buddhist population of nine percent is significantly larger compared to India’s less than one percent. Buddhism in Nepal remains intermingled with Hinduism, and many consider the Buddha a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Historically, Nepal has been a sanctuary for Buddhists fleeing persecutions in neighboring countries.

Fifth, Nepal connects important Buddhist circuit countries such as India, Tibet, China and Myanmar. Over the centuries, a distinct form of Buddhism emphasizing Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions developed in Nepal. Moreover, Buddhism has blended with Hinduism, historically and culturally, to the extent that people share their places of worship.

For centuries, Nepal has served as a passageway for Buddhist monks and travelers. For instance, during the Licchavi period (400–750 CE), Chinese monks and scholars, such as Seng-Tsai, Fa-Hsien, Che-Meng and Hsuan-tsang, travelled to Lumbini. They introduced the faith in China and left behind treasure troves of historical accounts about early Buddhism. The sixth-century princess Bhrikuti, married to the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo, is often credited for spreading Buddhism in Tibet. Kathmandu continues to be an important center for Buddhist learning.

Finally, efforts in connectivity have increased. An international airport is being built near Lumbini. The profile of Lumbini has been enhanced with the establishment of a Buddhist university and the creation of an international peace award named after the Buddha. A plan is also underway to build a Buddhist circuit around Lumbini.

But as a mountainous, land-locked country, Nepal is heavily dependent on India for overland transit and access to the sea. Currently, the country has only one international airport. It has few quality highways and road traffic safety is a major concern. In 2016, Nepal ranked 98th out of 138 economies for its infrastructure. The decade-long civil war in the 1990s, followed by a prolonged transition, hampered tourism adversely.

The government has been slow to carry through plans. The original Lumbini Development Master Plan of 1978 was never fully implemented, and subsequent proposals have either been mired in controversy or discarded. After almost a decade of reactivating the nearly defunct International Committee for the Development of Lumbini (ICDL), a new Master Plan (Lumbini- World Peace City), envisaging an investment of $762 million, was unveiled in 2014.

Air quality in Lumbini and in urban areas has deteriorated rapidly. News reports of trash problems in the Everest region and mass animal sacrifice rituals tarnish the overall image of Nepal as a serene and peaceful destination.

Opportunities remain

Several external factors appear conducive to transforming Nepal into a global Buddhist tourism hub. First, faith tourism continues to grow despite economic recessions or disasters, and religious travelers tend to be more committed in their visit plans as well as in actually making the trips, for instance, to Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, or Rome. The Hajj pilgrimage of Muslims brings in $16.5 billion annually to Saudi Arabia. In our neighborhood, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, collectively known as Chaar Dhaam, draw religious travelers all year round. Buddhist sites in India and Nepal have the potential to attract more faith-inspired tourists.

Second, tourist arrivals in Nepal have grown steadily. The country attracted some 9,388 visitors in 1965 compared to 800,000 in 2014. The tourism sector contributes around seven percent of GDP. Religious tourism has also grown, from one percent of the total arrivals of 334,353 in 1997 to 16.8 percent of 602,867 arrivals in 2010. According to official figures, in 2013, for example, Lumbini attracted 125,496 foreign tourists. At the same time, in 2016, over a million domestic tourists visited Lumbini.

Third, regional tourism prospects appear bright. Nepal sits between China and India, two of the fastest-growing economies. Annually, more than a million Indian visitors travel to Nepal overland. More will visit when Buddhist circuits in both countries are linked. In 2013, some 113,173 Chinese tourists visited Nepal—a 250 percent increase compared to figures from four years earlier. As a support to post-quake economic recovery, China has officially encouraged its citizens to visit the Himalayan country.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also presents a bigger opportunity in intra-regional Buddhist tourism. This initiative links the region through a vast network of highways, railways, waterways and transmission lines. Nepal is one among more than 65 countries participating in this massive initiative. The BRI is expected to spur investment in trans-Himalayan infrastructures, unleashing “enormous potentials” for economic cooperation.

Further, Nepal’s membership in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the New Development Bank (BRICS Bank) has widened the scope for regional contacts. The country has pinned its hopes on tourism prospects created by the BIMSTEC Buddhist Circuit.

Fourth, Nepal’s tourism sector offers growing opportunities for foreign investors. Bhairahawa, the main city near Lumbini, for example, has attracted several private and foreign investors in hotels and services. The country’s FDI inflow in 2008 was one million dollars but reached $74 million in 2013. The government target to draw a commitment of at least one billion dollars during the Nepal Investment Summit 2017 exceeded to $13.51 billion.

Finally, despite some negative media publicity about political instability or pollution, an opportunity for the country is that the leading media companies or publishers such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Lonely Planet often list Nepal in their ‘must visit’ lists. This is a huge advantage in the branding campaign.

Hurdles to overcome 

Several external factors constrain Nepal’s aspiration to become a global Buddhist tourism destination. India has more Buddhist sites and better facilities. Tourist arrivals in Tibet are nearly three times higher than in Nepal. Bhutan, another Buddhist destination, attracts high-spending tourists.

International media spotlight on disasters, road accidents, pollution, littering on Mt Everest, and—still, to a lesser extent—on political disturbances, may discourage pilgrims from visiting the country. A troubling obstacle in branding effort is the continued misrepresentation of Buddha’s birthplace, in the Indian and international media, and even in school textbooks, such as in South Korea. The long-running informal campaign dubbed “Buddha Was Born in Nepal” is still struggling to root out the misinformation.

Geopolitics and geography conspire in Nepal. India has in the past abruptly choked overland transit to Nepal. Most recently, in 2015, it imposed a five-month border blockade, which devastated the economy hitting a six-year low in tourist arrivals. China’s sensitivity to the Tibet issue, as well as the treacherous mountain passes with barely a couple of border crossings, also limit the inflow of visitors from the north.

Although market expansions make regional integration a reality, greater cooperation and coordination among Buddhist circuit nations is still limited. India remains reluctant to embrace the idea of trilateral cooperation with China and Nepal. It has been wary of Chinese presence in Nepal.

Adhikari has been a long-time media columnist with Republica. Currently, he is an associate professor of journalism at Shantou University, China. Zhang is an associate professor of communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio, USA

(This is the first part of two-part essays. The second part will be published next week)

Adhikari has been a long-time media columnist with Republica. Currently, he is an associate professor of journalism at Shantou University, China. Zhang is an associate professor of communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio, USA, and a Contributing Scholar for the Faith Diplomacy Initiative at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy  

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