PESHAWAR: There once was a time when the province now-known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was seen as one of the most beautiful places on earth rather than the most dangerous. Tourists from all over Pakistan and the rest of the world would flock to it to enjoy its breathtaking landscapes, pleasant climate and the unparalleled hospitality of its people.
After over a decade and a half of suffering under the scourge of terrorism, the K-P government is on a mission to ramp up tourism and restore the province to its former glory. But as it opens up new spots for local and international visitors, the provincial government is also looking to tap the rather overlooked sector of religious tourism.
In particular, K-P authorities plan to develop archaeological sites associated with Buddhism to attract tourists and pilgrims from all over East Asia, including China, South Korea and Thailand, officials told The Express Tribune. There are dozens of ancient sites of sacred importance to various religions, including Buddhism scattered all over K-P, they said. “Many more remain unexplored,” said one of them.
“Religious tourism plays an important role in developing a country’s tourism industry,” the official added. “That is why the K-P government is working on exploring and developing hubs for religious tourists. These visitors will play another crucial role as they carry a softer image of K-P and Pakistan back home.”
In connection with one initiative to promote religious tourism to K-P, a team of Buddhist pilgrims and researchers from South Korea is already in the province. The delegation, which includes four monks and academics from Dongguk University, arrived on August 26 and is on a four-day trip exploring historical Gandhara sites in K-P and Taxila.
“Gandhara is a very precious cultural heritage,” South Korea’s Ambassador Kwak Sung-Kyu, who is accompanying the delegation, told The Express Tribune. “I think this initiative is a really important one. It will not only boost religious pilgrimages by Buddhists to Gandhara heritage sites but also enhance awareness regarding K-P and Pakistan among the people of my country.”
Speaking about how the initiative would improve Pakistan’s image, the envoy said: “Before they landed here, even the members of this delegation were concerned about their safety. After this tour, however, they will go back and convince the Korean public that K-P and Pakistan are not only safe but a very good destination for tourists.”
Ambassador Kwak emphasised this aspect in a speech he delivered while escorting the delegation. “Owing to its unique world heritage, especially the most shining Gandhara civilisation as a main source of attraction, Pakistan will be an appealing destination for Korean Buddhist pilgrimage and tourists,” he said.
Another delegation from South Korea’s Joge Buddhist order is expected to follow the one currently on tour and arrive in November.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, K-P Director Archaeology Abdul Sammad explained K-P’s importance to Buddhists, particularly those in South Korea. “Korea’s links with K-P are almost 1,600 years old,” he said.
“Malananda, the Gandharan Buddhist monk who introduced the religion to Korea in 4th century AD, left for the country from an area that is now Chhota Lahore in Swabi,” he pointed out. “So that is why K-P is extremely important to Korean people, Korean Buddhists in particular. This sort of like a holy land to them, like the Ka’aba and other holy sites, are important to us Muslims.”
Talking about the K-P government’s plans for the tourism sector, Abdul Sammad said this is the first time religious tourism was being promoted at this scale in the province and Pakistan. “Religious tourism is one of the unexplored aspects of Pakistan’s tourism industry, so we want to promote K-P as a hub for it, particularly in the eyes of Buddhists and Sikhs across the world.”
He added that his department would, in particular, focus on promoting archaeological tourism in the province.
“We have thousands of Buddhist sites here, especially in K-P, which are of very sacred importance to the Buddhist people,” said Senior Tourism Minister Atif Khan. “The sort of important sites here in our province are rarely seen anywhere else in the world, so we would like to invite the people of all Buddhist countries to Pakistan and K-P.”
He added that more tourists from
abroad would not only increase job opportunities and business activities, but also help promote a positive image for Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2019.