Baisakhi festival & potential of religious tourism

IT is pleasing to note that notwithstanding current tension in relations between Pakistan and India, hundreds of Sikhs from the neighbouring country moved across the border to attend the annual Baisakhi festival which concluded on Saturday at Gurdawara Panja Sahib in Hassanabdal. Minister for Religious Affairs, Sardar Mohammad Yusuf, who was the chief guest at the concluding ceremony, said that Pakistan has always welcomed and facilitated the Sikh community to visit their holy places in the country.
Indeed, Pakistan has always shown open heartedness for the visits of Sikhs from India and other parts of the country for performance of their religious rituals but we understand the number of Sikh Yatrees visiting Pakistan still does not commensurate with the potential the country especially Punjab has which in fact is the birthplace of Sikhism and hosts the religion’s most holiest sites. With the right kind of intervention especially by involving our diplomatic missions abroad, we can attract more Yatrees from the West, especially the UK, where there is a huge Sikh population. In addition, the most revered sites of Buddhism and Hinduism are also located in our country but the regrettable part is that we have so far failed to exploit the huge potential that the religious tourism offers which can accrue not only economic benefits but also help project the country’s soft and peaceful image. Though overall tourism sector suffered a setback after 9/11 due to deteriorating security situation in the country but it is also a fact that the tourism has not been a priority subject. We say so as the subject stands dissolved after the 18th amendment but except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa no other provincial government has so far come up with any tourism policy. Due to lack of policy initiatives the fact of the matter is that the share of travel and tourism in GDP is stagnant to around two point eight per cent whilst in many countries this share is around thirty percent.
The benefits of religious tourism are certainly something that Pakistan can profit from and for this the federal and provincial governments need to devise cohesive and coordinated strategies to boost tourism in line with how Saudi Arabia has done through the millions of pilgrims visiting its territory every year and earning billions of dollars from this sector. Then we have before the example of Indonesia which has also taken steps in recent times to promote religious tourism by promoting the architectural structures – mainly mosques – across the country. As security situation stands much improved now, it is time that we gear up efforts to attract more and more religious tourists. Any improvement in the facilities at the holy sites including that of better hoteling as well as a softer visa policy for such visitors will mean that Pakistan can make use of the untapped potential of religious tourism and can attract pilgrims not only from India but also other countries including Sri Lanka, the US and the Europe. Then we also have beautiful Islamic monuments and relics which need to be rehabilitated and showcased to the world in order to attract more tourists. With increased connectivity under CPEC project, we expect that the multibillion dollar corridor project will also positively impact the country’s tourism sector and make it hub for investment in tourism and hotel industry.

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