Lumbering in Lumbini
- Development of the Lumbini area requires more investment and interest from the private sector
May 13, 2014-For millions of Buddhists across the world, Lumbini holds a significant place in their hearts. Recognised as the birthplace of the Gautam Buddha more than two centuries ago by Ashoka, the Great Mauryan Emperor through the erection of an inscribed pillar, Lumbini does not only hold religious importance but also historic, cultural and archeological value. A 1967 Lumbini visit by then UN Secretary-General U Thant lent further importance to Lumbini’s identity at the international level. Under the able guidance of U Thant himself, an international committee was formed, which would be instrumental in developing a Lumbini Master Plan and the Lumbini Development Trust for overall management. Events such as international Buddhist conferences and other research-oriented programmes that followed ultimately helped highlight Lumbini. The Government of Nepal also formally launched the first Gautam Buddha International Peace Award in the year 2002 in support of the message of peace propounded by Lord Gautam Buddha.
However, despite Lumbini’s vast potential, the development process has not been as smooth as envisaged. The implementation of the Lumbini Master Plan has already been delayed by about two decades and 30 percent of work remains to be completed. The Lumbini Development Trust, responsible for the development of the Lumbini area, has been mired in numerous political controversies. It has also become a matter of competition among development partners to involve themselves in Lumbini, from building simple infrastructure to major heritage site improvements. Hence, a consolidated tourism development plan is the need of the hour.
A lack of information about the different historic, cultural and heritage Buddhist sites and a dearth of significant tourism-related services and activities has led to a large number of tourists who enter through the Nepal-India border simply spending a few hours wandering around with nothing much to do. Lumbini has yet to be branded in light of its full tourism potential. The historic, religious, cultural and archaeological importance of the site, along with attractive advertisements in Buddhist countries and on the international tourism market, still needs to be aggressively pursued. A sense of ownership for the local community and the possibility for opportunities generated by Lumbini area tourism has also not been communicated effectively.
The master plan for Lumbini’s development was developed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and approved in 1978. Even though the master plan has not been fully implemented, the construction of basic structures in line with the master plan indicates the change that has been brought to the Lumbini area at present. Furthermore, plans to upgrade the Gautam Buddha Airport (GBA) into an international airport, the construction of standard access road from Bhairahawa to Lumbini, archaeological excavation in and around Lumbini, plans for the establishment of a Buddhist University and the establishment of a monastic zone with monasteries from different countries provides a clear indication that Lumbini is changing for the better.
The implementation of the Lumbini master plan and the construction of an international airport at Bhairahawa will provide immense opportunities. The primary target after the international airport comes into operation should be to accelerate and properly manage the inflow of traffic to Lumbini. In the year 2018, the year when the airport is scheduled to come into operation, there are plans to welcome 5,000 domestic and 2,000 international flights, which will require facilities for about 400,000 tourists. After the completion of other phases of development, the airport plans to cater to 550,000 and 900,000 passengers by the year 2023 and 2033 respectively.
To make the area and its development more sustainable, the areas adjoining Lumbini will also need to be developed. For this, development work has to be pursued in parallel, along with that of the GBA. An extended version of the master plan by architect Kwaak Young Hoon is in the final phase of planning while international agencies are actively involved in archaeological excavation in Lumbini and Tilaurakot areas. Areas related to the life of Lord Buddha are being linked by roads whereas the link road, the Hulaki Rajmarg—between Kapilvastu and Ramgram—has been upgraded. Heritage tourism has started to connect the opportunities created by tourism development to the benefit of the local community. A Lumbini area Tourism Promotional Plan, which will include a development plan for all of Lumbini and its adjoining areas, is also in the formulation process.
Even with the immense tourism possibilities, investment in infrastructure has not been as forthcoming as expected. As Lumbini is not even able to cater to the accommodation needs of the current volume of tourists, we can only imagine what will happen after four years when the international airport comes into operation. In the Kapilvastu area, which has about 156 tourist sites related to the Buddha, it is difficult to find a standard hotel and it is no different in Nawalparasi district. The Bhairahawa-Butwal area, one of the most important commercial areas of the western region, lacks a five-star hotel even today. The involvement of the private sector is at a minimum.
Private actors have not come forward to actively involve themselves in village-based cultural heritage tourism. A lack of knowledge about Buddhist history in tour packages has long been a source of complaints from many tourists who come to Lumbini. Therefore, it is high time that the private sector takes an aggressive approach to fill in the opportunity gap that exists in the system, instead of simply talking about the state not being able to do so. Within the next four years, we should be commercially capable enough to provide excellent services through a number of star standard hotels, environmental-friendly transportation systems, knowledgeable and sensitive travel and tour programmes and new tourism-related activities.
Even though a number of national and international investors are interested in developing the Lumbini area, no significant transformation has been seen so far. However, those ‘wait-and-see’ investors now seem to be motivated by the smooth implementation of the Gautam Buddha International Airport plan. Investors are eager to invest in hotels, resorts, hill stations, cable cars, and spiritual services. If Nepal is not able to capitalise on this opportunity, we may end up facing the same situation as now even after four years, which will definitely have a devastating impact on the tourism sector as a whole.
In conclusion, the private sector should get involved in the ongoing process of development around Lumbini in a more pragmatic way. The development of Lumbini should not be seen as simply the province of the government’s development activity but as an opportunity for the economic transformation of the country through tourism. Lumbini is not only a religious centre for millions of Buddhists but also symbolises kindness, non-violence, world peace, human rights, coexistence, sacrifice and meditation as well as acting as a research centre for an ancient Buddha-era civilisation, culture and heritage.
- PURNA CHANDRA BHATTARAI
Bhattarai is Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation
Published: 14-05-2014 08:47