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State trains sights on Buddhist tourism

The state government plans to tap in the tourism potential of famous Buddhist sites by asking the Indian Railways to run the Mahaparinirvan Express, a special Buddhist train, in Odisha.

"We are trying to convince the Railways to extend the Buddhist train's route to Odisha. If through, we can expect arrival of more tourists, particularly foreigners from Buddhist nations," state tourism director H S Upadhyay told TOI.

Sources said the department recently spoke with functionaries of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC), a subsidiary of Railways, to explore feasibility of extending the train's route. At present, the Mahaparinirvan Express covers Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, connecting several Buddhist sites in Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Rajgir, Sarnath, Gorakhpur, Khushinagar, Gonda, Sravasti and Agra. The entire package consists of seven nights and eight days. Under the package, pilgrims are also taken to Lumbini in Nepal by bus from Khushinagar, the sources added.

"Odisha has several fascinating Buddhist sites such as Dhauli, Langudi, Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. The government is taking measures to beautify those sites," Upadhyay said.

Sources said the Odisha chapter of Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) had in the past demanded the government to extend the Buddhist train's route to the state. "It had been a longstanding demand. It is good if the state government facilitates extension of the train route. Since tribal tourism is in the doldrums, we need to tap the Buddhist tourism sector," Bhubaneswar-based tour operator Benjamin Simon said.

Even though thousands of tourists from East Asia, South-East Asia and Nepal visit Bodh Gaya in Bihar every year, the footfall in Odisha is abysmally poor. Sources said nearly 1,175 tourists from South Korea visited the state in 2009. A little over 3500 visitors from Japan toured Odisha same year. In all, 8,547 tourists from different South East Asian countries had thronged to the state in 2009.

Travel professionals faulted the state government for poor promotion of Buddhist tourism abroad. At a recent entrepreneurs' conference in Bhubaneswar, some tour operators from China and Japan expressed ignorance about the presence of a host of enchanting Buddhist sites in Odisha. "We had not expected to see those enchanting relics of Lord Buddha, huge monasteries, stone stupas, sculptures and images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas in Odisha," a tour and travel professional, Kiatfuengfoo.

The foreign tour operators had advised the government to organize road shows and travel fairs in Buddhist nations. The view was echoed by those in the domestic circuit. "Vibrant publicity and better air connectivity to South East Asian countries can bring in more visitors to Buddhist sites in Odisha," said Srimant Kumar Dash, president of India-Japan Friendship Centre, a voluntary organization. "There should be more interpretation centres at Buddhist sites. Trained guides and scholars should be present there to explain to tourists about the historical and archaeological importance of the place," Dash added.