--BY TAMISH GIRI
In early December 2018, veteran Hollywood actor, Morgan Freeman, along with a crew of National Geographic TV channel visited Nepal to shoot a religious documentary series the Story of God. The arrival of a guest like Freeman set the internet and media abuzz leading tourism entrepreneurs to express high optimism that it could be a cornerstone for promoting Nepali religious and cultural tourism. Over the past years, it has been seen that many foreigners come to Nepal mostly to go to religious sites and to meet spiritual gurus to learn meditation and yoga techniques. Many see this as an opportunity, if promoted with proper plans and strategies, that Nepal can become a destination for high spending religious and spiritual visitors.
For ages Nepal has remained a major religious destination mainly for South and East Asians. Sites like Pashupatinath, Janakpurdham, Manakamana Temple and Devghat are some of the many places of worship in the country forHindus. Similarly, the Lumbini area, monasteries such as Swoyambhunath, Bouddhanath along with Hiranya Varna Mahavihar and other Buddhist shrines in the capital valley, and Namobuddha have remained a major centres for Buddhists the world over. Likewise, temples like Muktinath, which is revered as Chumming Gyatsa by Buddhists, and the Gosaikunda lake are also sacred destinations for people of both faiths.
Tour operators say that visitors not only from India, China and other countries in Asia but also from western nations are getting attracted towards spiritual and religious tours in Nepal.
Karma Phuntsok, a tour operator who runs a travel agency in Thamel, says that non-Chinese religious tourists including the Chinese diaspora from Malaysia, Singaporeans, Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians along with Europeans, Americans and Australians either come for long stays on student visas or tourist visas to participate in spiritual activities and religious tours often in small groups. “They spend more money than the other visitors on accommodation and food. In some cases, such visitors make multiple visits a year,” he shares. In the meantime, new source markets for Nepali religious tourism are also emerging. Frugal Travis, an American tour operator who works in Nepal, says that western countries could be a potential source market for Nepal to bring Buddhist tourists. “Buddhism is growing fast in the western world. Many westerners are tired of Christianity and seek to live a more meaningful life,” he mentions.
According to data published by the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), a total of 187,692 tourists visited Nepal for pilgrimage and spiritual reasons which grew to 197, 786 in 2019. Except for 2020 when the tourist arrival in Nepal hit an all-time low due to Covid-19 pandemic, the statistics indicate that the number of foreigners visiting Nepal for religious reasons has grown noticeably over the years.
Historically, India has remained as the major religious tourist source market for Nepal. Government officials say that the number of visiting Indian tourists has increased by more than 40 percent in 2019 to sites like Pashupatinath and Lumbini. According to Pradeep Dhakal, member secretary of Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), the number of foreign devotees and other visitors coming to Pashupatinath has grown tremendously over the years. “It is basically due to improved infrastructure and promotion of the site,” he says.
Likewise, the number of Buddhist tourists visiting Lumbini and other Buddhist pilgrimage sites has also grown. In 2019, a total of 173,083 tourists had visited Lumbini via the air route.
However, religious tourism has never been prioritised and its socio-economic significance is yet to be identified. “We are yet to conduct a proper study on religious tourism in the country. We still lack the exact data of religious tourists, their expenditure and average length of stay,” says Dhakal.
According to Sharad Pradhan, deputy country director and head of marketing department at XcelTrip, tour operators in Nepal basically offer two religious packages, Hindu and Buddhist trails comprising of tours to the major sites of both faiths. Pilgrims from India and Bangladesh along with east Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are the customers for the Hindu trail. Likewise, visitors from Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, China and other East Asian nations purchase the Buddhist trail packages.
However, some tour operators say that despite the fact that Nepal is becoming popular as a religious tourism destination the return on investment is still low from such activities. According to them, religious tourists spend much less compared to other visitors. Ashok Pokhrel, MD of Shangrila Tours says that every dollar spent in marketing and promotion to attract pilgrims usually results in lower earnings compared to those who come here for activities such as adventure tourism. He suggests focusing on bringing products to increase the engagement of pilgrims and spiritual visitors.
As per data published by the Department of Immigration, of the total 230,085 tourists who visited Nepal last year, 35 percent were East Asian Buddhist visitors.
Bijaya Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours, says that tourism stakeholders need to work together in order to develop Nepal’s tourist source markets in East Asia in the long term. He thinks that the opening of the Gautam Buddha International Airport, which is nearing completion, will be a cornerstone in attracting East Asian and other Buddhist visitors. “But the authorities also need to lure international airlines to fly to and from the airport to bring visitors in large numbers,” he says.
While tourism stakeholders are asking for strategies to make the most out of religious tourism, NTB is preparing a promotional plan targeting Asian source markets to attract religious tourists. Mani Lamichhane, director of NTB says under this strategy, NTB and Nepal Airlines are planning a sales mission to the Indian cities of Mumbai and Delhi. “Besides, we are planning to attend major upcoming tourism fairs in India such as South Asia’s Travel & Tourism Exchange (SATTE) 2021 scheduled for March 24-26 and the 3-day B2B travel mart OTM scheduled for 19-21 August. Likewise, we are also getting ready to participate in fairs in China and other Asian destinations,” he informs.
Nepal with its diverse ethnic makeup may have great potential to cater to international pilgrimages, but tourism entrepreneurs suggest that insufficient infrastructure and technological advancement, lack of trained human resources and diversified tourism packages have been hindering Nepal to grow sufficiently as a premium pilgrimage destination.
Hoteliers also see the possibility of big gains in high value religious tourism as it can provide some support to the hospitality sector which is reeling badly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Shreejana Rana, president of Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN), thinks that tourism authorities and the private sector need to come up with proper strategies to develop this segment of Nepali tourism. “Nepal is home to religious sites of tremendous value. Nevertheless, we have not been able to brand these sites adequately and develop specific tourism products,” she says.