Lately, we have been following news about the Pakistani government`s bold initiatives to increase the number of foreign visitors by opening up the Kartarpur Corridor near the border between India and Pakistan. The country seems to attract mainly Sikhs to change the perception of the country and get a much-needed boost to its economy. Could religious tourism be a savior of the Pak economy? Well, it depends on many factors as Dr. Vaqar Ahmed, an economist from Pakistan, has aptly pointed out in the following article published on www.arabnews.pk.
According to another economist, “a lot of concerted effort needed to promote tourism in general including religious tourism. After decades of reluctance finally, Saudi Arabia has realized the importance of tourism. Hence we see gradual steps in visa policy and even a bit of naturalization of long term residents.
Pakistan has opened the Kartarpur Corridor, allowing followers of Sikhism from India to cross the border without a visa and visit their founder’s resting place. Of course, the followers of this faith are not limited to India and therefore Pakistan has welcomed them from other parts of the world on now very liberal travel and visa arrangements. Members of the Sikh community also acknowledge that Pakistan has restored over 20 Gurdwaras that carry spiritual importance for those wishing to make the pilgrimage.
While the peace constituency on both sides has termed this a bold move by Pakistan and the Indian Prime Minister has acknowledged the expediency with which Pakistan completed the infrastructure-related arrangements, many do not see this as an intervention that could significantly bring down the ongoing political tensions between the two countries. What is, however, more certain, is that there will be economic benefits of Kartarpur for Pakistan. The governor of Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province has even claimed that religious tourism in the country could bring in $5 billion into the country every year.
But such estimates are at best, guesswork. The potential of religious tourism hinges critically upon continued efforts to improve internal law and order, a liberal visa policy, infrastructural improvements at worship sites, liveable and secure hotel facilities, and linkages of traditional worship sites with urban areas.
It is encouraging, however, that Pakistan is opening up to visitors of other religious faiths. The government is keen to brand the country as a place where historically, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and followers of Judaism lived together not so long ago. Last month’s visit to Arayawangso, a distinguished Buddhist monk from Thailand, who rang the ‘Bell of Peace’ at Peshawar Museum and prayed after a gap of over 15 centuries at the Grand Stupa of Taxila, helped realize that image.
Arayawangso has now encouraged Buddhists from all over the world to come for meditation in Taxila, Peshawar, Takht Bhai, and Swat Valley – which hold places of worship dating back to the second century. The potential here for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province is enormous. The inflow of Buddhist tourists could create increased demand for hospitality-related infrastructure including hotels, restaurants, and tourist information hubs, and in turn, create jobs at each of the worship sites.
For religious tourism to flourish, an overarching national level tourism promotion strategy is imperative.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
Going forward, Pakistan has a lot to learn from the region. India has made an effort to attract Muslims from across the globe to visit the two shrines of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. There is a distance of 364 miles between the two sites, but India offers 23 trains at regular intervals to take the pilgrims from one site to another. There is a whole local economy that the government allows to expand around these two shrines. The visitors pay heavy sums for offerings at the shrines in the form of holy scents, flowers, long cloth chaddars with writing on it from the Quran, traditional food for their own consumption and charity. The devotees who can’t travel every year have the facility to pay through online modes with the promise that somebody pious will pray on their behalf.
For religious tourism to flourish, an overarching national level tourism promotion strategy is imperative. Such a strategy goes well beyond a basic infrastructure uplift to ensure that the cultural, lingual, social and dietary needs of visitors are also taken care of. In this regard, Thailand has shown promise in appealing to travelers from Muslim countries – even though the country may not have any religion-specific importance for Muslims.
The Thai government is implementing measures for what they call halal tourism. This has led to the development of new products and services such as customized prayer and restroom facilities, recreational facilities with private spaces for women, as well as an emphasis on ensuring that halal food is widely available across the country. These initiatives resulted in 3.7 million Muslim tourists last year in Thailand which is 10% of the total international arrivals in the country.
Another key lesson from outside of Pakistan is that mobilizing domestic tourism paves the way for a higher global tourist foot-fall. Pakistan can make significant progress to ease the concerns of domestic religious tourists. There are a countless number of people in the country who have never visited the mausoleums of ‘Sufi saints’ including Lal Shabaz Qalandar, Shah Latif and Data Sahib. There is no doubt that people around the world, and especially members of the Pakistani diaspora, will want to visit the country if a decent tourism ecosystem can be ensured.