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Pakistan Hopes for Buddhist Tourism Boost

August 9, 2023

TAKHT-E-BAHI: Although religious violence is rising and the Taliban remains a concern, Pakistan hopes its rich Buddhist legacy will attract international tourists to its difficult northwest.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with its pleasant mountain environment and rich history near the Afghan border, was once a playground for colonial explorers and upper-class Pakistanis.

After 9/11 sparked war in Afghanistan and an insurgency against the Pakistani government, it became synonymous with Pakistani Taliban and other extremists who have killed thousands.

Wealthier Pakistanis and Westerners stopped visiting due to attacks and kidnapping, but the province government is now aiming to attract thousands of wealthy Asian visitors from Japan and South Korea.

Takht-e-Bahi, northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). AFP photo.

Twenty South Korean Buddhist monks traveled to Takht-e-Bahi, 170 km (106 mph) from Islamabad and near Taliban and al Qaeda-linked tribal areas.

“We really felt it is our home town, it was a great feeling which it is not possible to describe in words,” senior Korean monk Jeon Woon Deok told AFP by email last year.

“We only regret waiting so long to come here.” It was no easy pilgrimage.

The monks visited the ochre-stone monastery on a hillside despite Seoul’s warnings to cancel. Pakistani security forces guarded them.

A Pakistani guy (centre R) wanders at Takht-e-Bahi monastery in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). Photo by AFP

From 1,000 years BC until the seventh century AD, northern Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan formed the Gandhara monarchy, where Greek and Buddhist practices established the Mahayana religion.

The fourth-century monk Marananta crossed China and established Buddhism on the Korean peninsula from northwest Pakistan.

Takht-e-Bahi’s gardens attract families, teens, and Quranic school students. Foreign visitors are scarce.

“There were foreign tourists here before the attacks, but now there are hardly any,” said local guide Iftikhar Ali.

Pakistanis visit Takht-e-Bahi monastery in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). Photo by AFP

Ali stated he only saw one or two brave east Asian travelers a month.

“For them this place is like Makkah,” said Zulfiqar Rahim, head of the Gandhara Art and Culture Association, which promotes Pakistan’s Buddhist legacy.

Bhutanese monks visited last year, but the administration wants to increase numbers swiftly.

Pakistani religious students see Takht-e-Bahi monastery in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). Photo by AFP

“We are currently working to promote religious and archaeological Buddhist tourism,” said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tourism deputy minister Syed Jamaluddin Shah.

Government plans package tours for Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, and South Korean visitors to Takht-e-Bahi, Swat, Peshawar, and Taxila, near Islamabad, to visit Buddhist sites.

The tourism potential is huge. If a million people arrive and spend $1,200 on hotels and other expenses, Rahim remarked, it would be a billion dollars.

A Pakistani youth gestures in front of Takht-e-Bahi monastery in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). — Photo by AFP

In Korea, China, and Japan, there are 50 million Mahayana Buddhists.

A Pakistani youth gestures in front of Takht-e-Bahi monastery in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP). — Photo by AFP

There is still plenty to do. Security issues, insufficient tourism infrastructure, and visa and permit issues in high-risk locations will make it tough to overcome.

Massive floods in 2010 inflicted more devastation, but the US has donated $5.4 million to rebuild Swat’s economy and tourism.

For now, Pakistani Buddhist shrines are largely visited by locals. Teacher Sajjad sighs at a Buddha statue, reflecting on his country’s problems: “We need this calm so much.

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