Exploring Buddhist tourism across Asia

Buddhist sites hold great potential for tourism in Asia, but need to be managed sustainably, writes Rebecca Connell.

Buddhism is one of the world’s dominant religions with an estimated 535 million people practising it worldwide, 90 percent of which reside in Asia. This growing population is responsible for generating a large amount of cultural tourism to visit sites connected to Buddhism, including philosophy, culture, and heritage. Such tourism accounted for 40 percent of the travel in the Asia Pacific region in 2019.

In past few years, a series of conferences around Buddhist heritage and tourism  in Asian countries were organized by national tourism organisations with support from World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

“It was being recognised that Buddhist sites had great potential for developing tourism,” says Dr Kiran Shinde, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at La Trobe University. “Because of the spread of this religion across Asia there was a fair amount of international travel that was already happening, so it was time to start thinking about this type of tourism more systematically and sustainably.”

A key milestone came in 2017 when UNWTO proposed to undertake a comprehensive study titled Buddhist Tourism in Asia: Towards Sustainable Development. This is a first study of its kind that simultaneously examined the status of Buddhist tourism in 16 Asian countries, individually and collectively, at the regional level. The study was led by Dr Kiran Shinde of La Trobe University and supported by scholars from Taylors University, Malaysia, Hong Kong Polytechnic and University of North Texas, USA.

The study looks into how certain countries have capitalised on Buddhism tourism, recognising its potential, and developed tourism management practices in order to preserve the wide range of heritage sites while catering to a diverse range of travellers.

“In countries like Japan, Korea, and especially Thailand, they have integrated heritage sites with walking or wellness tourism,” says Dr Shinde.

“An example is Kyoto, which is the poster city for Buddhism in Japan. Kyoto combines different forms of tourism to attract different travellers, and the system there is managed in cooperation between the custodians of the heritage sites and the government. In China, they use technology to regulate and manage the flow of tourists, which helps sustain the integrity of the heritage site.”

The report highlighted how Buddhist Tourism differs from region to region and depends on how countries fund the maintenance of heritage sites. In countries such as India and Pakistan, the lack of a Buddhist population has led to little investment in sites, limited domestic tourism to fund maintenance, or to meaningfully contribute to the local economy.

In other countries Buddhism is engrained in the culture and fuels mass tourism.

“In a country like Burma most of the tourism is domestic. Because the spiritual life is entangled in their lifestyle you would find more people travelling for religious practice reasons rather than for spiritual enlightenment,” says Dr Shinde.

“Across Asia you find this range and diversity, and every nation almost became like a host to their own variety of Buddhism. It differs based on local cultures and local context and has created numerous archaeological, heritage, and cultural sites.”

“This study benchmarks what kind of industry this is, what makes up Buddhism Tourism. It is anticipated that organisations will use this excellent resource to develop lot of individual country specific projects including site management measures and identifying site potential for tourism in the future.”