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Kartarpur could drive religious tourism in Pakistan

Waqar Mustafa (Hidden Gems)
Filed on November 7, 2019 | Last updated on November 7, 2019 at 11.02 pm

Despite having this huge wealth of tourist attractions, the tourism sector contributes only 2.8 per cent to the country's GDP.

Pakistan is set to host next week thousands of Sikhs from across the world for one of their religion's most sacred festivals, the 550th birthday of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak. Ahead of the birth anniversary, the November 9 opening of a long-sought visa-free corridor to a holy temple in Pakistani border village of Kartarpur that promises pilgrims from India a reason for elation. To get to the village where the guru died, they had to first secure a visa, travel to the eastern city of Lahore and then arduously drive to the temple or be content with viewing it through binoculars from India. Now, up to 5,000 Indians will be allowed access daily through the corridor, which includes roadways, an 800-metre bridge over the Ravi River and an immigration office, with plans to eventually double capacity.

Sikhs consider Pakistan as the place where their religion began. Its Punjab province is home to five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs including Nankana Sahib, the place of Guru Nanak's birth in 1469, and Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal town, where the guru's handprint is believed to be imprinted on a boulder. The Samadh (mausoleum) of the powerful ruler of the Sikh dynasty Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) is situated in Lahore.

And so is a shrine built by him in the memory of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru. The guru's followers say it is the same spot where he miraculously disappeared in 1606 AD in the waters of river Ravi.

Muslim-majority Pakistan is situated in a region that has been home to the world's three major religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism - for centuries. And so, besides Sikh gurdawaras of historical importance, the South Asian country offers travellers to experience the historical heritage of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and visit a rich collection of mosques and Sufi shrines, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries and Christian places of worship.

Ancient mosques such as Shah Jahan Masjid in Thatta, Badshahi Masjid and many other mosques in Lahore, Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, Bhong Masjid in Rahim Yar Khan, Mahabat Khan Masjid in Peshawar, Ilyasi Masjid in Abbottabad, Masjid-e-Tooba in Karachi, Shahi Eidgah Masjid in Multan, Shahi Masjid in Chitral, Abbasi Masjid, Derawar Fort in Cholistan, Jamia Masjid Eidgah in Gujrat are all must-watch for their architecture. And so are the shrines of Sufi icons spread across the country.

Ancient Hindu temple complex at Katas Raj in northeastern Chakwal district is one of the holiest sites in South Asia for Hindus. They equally revere the water of a lake in the temple they believe was filled with the tears of Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism.

Sadhu Bela temple in southern Sukkur district is another most visited site by Hindus.

And 1,500-year-old Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir in Karachi is the only temple in the world that has an original statue of the Hindu deity 'Hanuman'. Hinglaj Mata Temple in Balochistan province also holds great significance to Hindus.

Takht-i-Bhai - a small scenic town 160 kms from capital Islamabad - is the most visited site by the Buddhists. Large to medium-sized stupas of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and other heritage sites from northern Gilgit-Baltistan region to tourist valley of Swat are reminiscent of the defunct civilization in this region.

Taxila, 27 kms from the country's capital Islamabad is another holy site, which includes a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of several Buddhist monasteries. In 2017, Pakistan unveiled the remains of a 1,700-year-old sleeping Buddha image near Haripur, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The 48-foot-high Kanjur stone Buddha image is from the 3rd century AD, making it the world's oldest sleeping Buddha remains. Korean Buddhists trace their religious origin to the area that is now Pakistan, where Korean monk Hyecho travelled 1,300 years ago.

Holy Trinity and St. Patrick's Cathedral in Karachi and Christ Church in Rawalpindi and Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore all have breathtaking architecture. I may have missed several religious sites.

Despite having this huge wealth of tourist attractions, the tourism sector contributes only 2.8 per cent to the country's gross domestic product compared to the regional average of 3.5pc. At world average rates, international tourism could contribute $3.5 billion - equivalent to the value of Pakistan's largest current export item, cotton - to the GDP. Besides direct gain, it could also mean increased employment and economic activity in the areas housing these religious sites.

So, the country has a great potential for religious tourism, which is now picking up mainly because of the improved law and order. The government has set up a national task force on tourism, followed by approval of a National Tourism Coordination Board.

It has also announced a new visa policy, a plan to provide online visa facility for 175 nations and has relaxed the system of No- Objection Certificate for certain regions.

However, an institutional and regulatory structure allowing for conservation and regulation, development of local talent for tourism services, provision of facilities and an environmentally sustainable marketing strategy is needed for attracting tourists from the region as well as from across the world for the benefit of local communities and the country as a whole.

- Waqar Mustafa is a senior journalist and commentator based in Lahore


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