PESHAWAR, Sept 9: Considered to be the world’s largest market for religious tourism, the Buddhist sites in Pakistan can attract tourists from across Asia-Pacific region, according to Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP).

“If sites are properly preserved and security is provided to tourists, the tourism sector can help to promote positive image of Pakistan and bring a change in local economy,” said Provincial Tourism Secretary Syed Jamaluddin Shah while talking to Dawn on Sunday.

“The provincial government has started investment to particularly promote tourism in two spheres. One is religious tourism that can bring followers of Buddhism from all over the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific region, and second, exploration of natural sites which have great potential to attract domestic tourists,” he said.

The secretary said that highly revered places of worship of Buddhism like monastic complex of Takht Bahi existed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

He said that the tourism corporation had organised Gandhara Peace Tour in April 2012 to introduce religious archaeological tourism.

A delegation had recently also visited South Korea to promote the theme of religious tourism, he said.

“There is great potential and we should take its advantage,” he remarked, adding that security and facilities for visitors were prerequisites for encouraging foreign tourists to come to Pakistan for worship and recreation.

According to the Unesco, the Buddhist monastic complex of Takht Bahi (Throne of Origins) in Mardan district – founded early in the 1st century – is the most impressive and complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan.

After the 18th Constitution amendment, the federal government has handed over 91 archaeological sites to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Archaeology Department. Officials said that the provincial government was improving these sites and basic facilities would be provided at these spots.

Mr Jamaluddin said that after constitutional amendments the provincial government had asked for the return of some 4,000 artefacts, including Buddha statues, which were shifted from the province to museums in other parts of the country for display.

He said that the matter had been taken up in meetings of inter-provincial coordination committee, the forum which was created to discuss issues and disputes among the federating units.

“We consider these pieces as our property and these should be returned to the KP,” he said and claimed that the statue of “Starving Buddha”, considered as a master piece of Gandhara Civilisation and placed in Lahore Museum, was the KP’s property.

Besides, the government is reconstructing and expanding Swat Museum in Mingora town with the as-sistance of Italian government.

The museum was damaged during militancy, but officials said that all pieces at the museum remained safe and later some artefacts were shifted to Taxila.

Reconstruction of Swat Museum is likely to be completed in December and the venue would be opened to visitors.

“If these artefacts are shifted to the province the KP will have then the largest and unique collections of Buddha,” said Jamaluddin, who said that Koreans wanted to establish Gandhara University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The officials said that road network and other basic facilities at attractive tourist spots in northern parts of the province, including Swat, were being improved to facilitate domestic tourists.

They said that Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Sialkot and other urban centres of Punjab and Sindh were the markets for domestic tourism and number of visitors from these areas had witnessed remarkable increase since security had improved in Swat and other areas.

An official said that Rs4 billion had been allocated to the reconstruction and expansion of main road between Mingora and picturesque Kalam Valley.

He said that work on the project had been started and it was likely to be completed by end of 2013.

Floods had washed away the road in July 2010 and as a result the tourists have been facing great hardships.

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