EARLIER this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted Pakistan’s potential for religious tourism when a new policy of relaxing visa applications was announced. He spoke about the sleeping Buddha, the Katas Raj temples, Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur as a few of the many religious sites that would be of interest to those belonging to the Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh religions. This speech was followed by the grand opening of the Kartarpur corridor on Nov 9, which facilitated a long-awaited pilgrimage for some 12,000 Sikh men, women and children from around the world. That same month, at a meeting with Buddhist monks from South Korea, the prime minister reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to promoting interfaith harmony and the pride it took in its Buddhist heritage. Most recently, the KP government has announced the setting up of the Gandhara Research Centre to promote religious tourism in the province. According to officials, the province boasts some 2,000 sites of historical and religious significance, and the government has pledged to preserve all sites with the help of the South Korean government. Other efforts made by the government include the announcement of the launch of a new bus service in Lahore, Multan and other cities of Punjab to facilitate religious tourism to various vibrant shrines across the province which are so integral to the country’s social fabric, and something that Mr Khan has also spoken about.
Undoubtedly, all such efforts to encourage interfaith harmony and religious pluralism are welcome. At the crossroads of many great civilisations, Pakistan is indeed blessed with a unique history and religious, ethnic and natural diversity that would appeal to many people around the world. Unfortunately, this country has also suffered from religious extremism and militancy over the past few decades, which has caused immeasurable damage to its international image. Who can forget the Nanga Parbat massacre, when 10 tourists and a local guide were brutally killed by terrorists in 2013? Such tragedies and the terror they strike in the hearts of people, along with the inability to market ourselves appropriately, are some of the reasons why few tourists have opted to travel to Pakistan. In comparison, other South Asian countries have performed much better in this regard, despite having their own share of political and social problems. Besides promoting tolerance, religious tourism can play an important role in reviving the country’s economy.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2019