Sri Lanka moots Buddhist pilgrimage trail

by R.K. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu, Feb 21, 2006

It will wind its way through India and end in Sri Lanka

CHENNAI, India -- Sri Lanka has mooted the idea of a Buddhist pilgrimage trail to attract tourists from China, Japan and Korea.

Its Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike told The Hindu that Nepal, India and Sri Lanka had the potential to attract tourists from these countries if they got their act together.

Mr. Bandaranaike, here on a personal visit, said earlier Sri Lanka had tried to sell itself as a sun-sand-sea destination. Despite being cheaper than many countries, the response left much to be desired. "I visited China twice last year. There is a growing middle class in China. But they are not interested in merely the sand and the sea. They want something more. After some research, we found that the Buddhist pilgrimage trail would work."

The minister said the trail would begin in Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and wind its way through Bodh Gaya, Saranath and other destinations in India before ending in Sri Lanka. In his country, there were many sites, including the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic at Kandy. "We now have direct flights from Colombo to China, and I think it would work well." Lumbini is at the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, and is one of the four holy places of Buddhism. The sites of his enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), first discourse (Saranath), and death (Kusinara) are in India.

He had held exploratory talks with Renuka Chowdhury, who was the Tourism Minister till the recent Cabinet reshuffle. "I plan to speak to the new Minister, Ambika Soni, as soon as possible to see how we can take this forward."

The main problem was at the starting point, Lumbini. Mr. Bandaranaike said he was told that the airport there would get ready only by December. "Without the airport, that leg cannot take off. I do not think that people will want to endure a tough road journey to reach there." There was a possibility that the Buddhist trail would have to go ahead without Lumbini, at least initially.

Sri Lanka was also keen on promoting south Indian destinations as a package. "I think destinations in Kerala, such as Kochi, and places in Tamil Nadu could form part of a package. We have to work on it." His Ministry would talk to the State Governments after the Assembly elections. He said the recent spurt in violence in the island nation had impacted tourist arrivals. He hoped they would pick up in the next few months.

"I do not want to be optimistic. To be optimistic is foolish," he said when asked about the impending Geneva talks. He cited past experience with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but added that he "hoped against hope" there would be some headway in the talks. "We all want peace in Sri Lanka." He was willing to "do anything for Sri Lanka" if asked.The talks would have a definite impact on the Sri Lankan Government, he said. The far-right Sinhala elements, which supported the Government, had so far "behaved better than I thought. I do not know how long it will last."