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‘Buddhist tourism’ idea fraught with difficulty

Apr 14. 2019
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By The Nation

For most foreign visitors, Thailand is a place to party and soak up the sun, not pursue spirituality

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports has recognised the inherent value in “Buddhist tourism” – bringing in foreign visitors to experience our religious traditions. Its promotion would certainly be a lot friendlier to the environment, but a good idea and its implementation are two different matters. 

Tourism entails making money. Buddhism fundamentally does not. Therein lies the challenge for whoever wants to try and marry the two and sell the hybrid concept to the world.

The ministry has indicated it has no extreme proposals in mind. It will begin by advertising locales of religious significance, which are abundant in Thailand. India and Nepal are enjoying a steady and growing stream of Buddhists from other Asian lands, including Thailand, for pilgrimages through places associated with Siddartha’s life. Japan lets foreigners share deeply in its Zen Buddhism traditions. Most tourists to Thailand, though, aren’t coming to pray.

Religious tourism – also known as faith tourism – might in fact be the oldest form of tourism, but in the modern world, with some exceptions, prayers are largely 

relegated to church and home.

The ministry acknowledges that tourism is crucial to the economies of Southeast and South Asia. But the sheer number of countries trying to balance spirituality and capitalism complicates its ambition to promote Buddhism as a segment of such a money-oriented sector. The ministry is correct in seeking regional cooperation in promoting Buddhist tourism in Asia, but it still must not underestimate the difficult task ahead.

Buddhism is a spiritual movement of simplicity, even if living a simple life is always easier said than done. The concept of Buddhist tourism requires all of the participating countries to pay more attention to various aspects of the religion, including ways of life and culture. That is a tall order, even at religiously important destinations.

In Thailand, for example, how might religious tourism be promoted when most visitor attractions offer alcohol and other perceived sins? Despite the authorities’ attempts to curb the spread of vice, this country is notorious for its prostitution and the overcharging of customers, particularly during high season. Our biggest draws include gaudy Pattaya and the physical frenzies of full-moon parties.

The irony is glaring. With a plethora of Buddhist and Hindu temples, Thailand is considered one of the few places outside India where faith tourism ought to be taking place. But has capitalism become too deeply rooted in our tourism industry?

To make its plan seem more serious and worthwhile, the ministry will have to draw a line. Anything-goes tourism will require clear-cut perimeters if Buddhism is going to become part of the travel industry. Otherwise we can forget about simplicity. The entire landscape will become monetised.

The homestay concept might easily be applied to Buddhist tourism. But, as we’ve learned, capitalism is always knocking at the door and has often barged in. Many temples have been drawn into moneymaking activities without tourism being involved. When promotion is in full swing, keeping Buddhist tourism the way it’s supposed to be could get truly difficult.

Greed often gets in the way. Even the most idealistic advocates of faith can find it hard to shake it off completely. Tourism is a daunting place to try the concept of simplicity and humility, but the ministry’s idea is noble and should be pursued. It will be interesting to see how far it can go.

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