Nepal as a spiritual brand for tourism
While much has been talked about Nepal as a mountaineering tourist brand, we don’t hear much about Nepal as a spiritual tourist destination. It seems that the grandeur of the Himalayas has somehow overwhelmed Nepal’s brand from a tourism perspective, as marketing Nepal as a spiritual destination is almost non-existent. While the nostalgia of the 60s hippy era does bring some here along the ‘hippy trail’, a coherent spiritual message from a brand perspective is missing. This article will first identify a few spiritual destinations and then try to lay out few hurdles we need to overcome to help attract more spiritual tourists from all around the world to Nepal.
Need we say anymore? The place it all began! A prince born 2500 years ago with all the riches, shielded from the sufferings that comes with being alive, decides to renounce everything and walks the path of enlightenment. With all the violence and division we see in the world today, his message of empathy, forgiveness and non-violence provides some degree of solace and optimism for humanity’s future. In present day, visiting the Lumbini Park that houses the birthplace, in addition to landmark monuments’ replicas from Buddhist countries, is bound to give you much needed escape and peace of mind even if you are not up for some deep soul searching and truth seeking meditation.
Shaktipeeths around the country
To have the world’s largest Hindu population just next door and dozens of important pilgrimage sites, yet not being able to indulge more Hindu tourists is disappointing to say the least! Add to this the fact that most of these Shaktipeeths and temples(Manakamana, Halesi Mahadev, Kalinchowk, Dolakha Bhimsen, Gosaikunda to name a few) are located in some of the most picturesque locations, it becomes even more depressing. For a lot of Hindus, these places are part of important praying, cleansing and self-reflecting rituals. Imagine yourself going on this spiritual journey that tests your physical and mental limits, battling freezing cold and a terrible uphill hike to Gosaikunda. Not only is the lake extremely beautiful, but the isolatory nature of the hike, away from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day ‘civilized’ life, is bound to take you on a personal journey with Shiva himself! The beautiful thing is that Gosaikunda is just one place amongst the hundreds of prospective places here in Nepal.
Well believe it or not, we find Kathmandu to be one of the most spiritual places in Nepal. Born and raised in Kathmandu, I used to find the city dirty and crowded. It was after being nudged by a foreigner friend that I undertook a spiritual journey to Kathmandu and what a rediscovery it was! From discovering the fact that Lord Shiva himself spent a night here at Nagarkot after having swallowed the poison to save the world, to finding important buddhist landmarks in the middle of Thamel, the city proved to be hosting two parallel worlds together. On one side, it is this polluted and dusty capital city with capitalism being the driving machine. However, on the other side, it also happens to host some of the biggest pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists( Pashupatinath, Boudhanath, Swayambhunath to name a few). Hidden right under the city’s exuberance of city life, lights, money, dust and pollution, you will find yourself face to face with the aghoris, monks, kumari and practitioners who will give you profound insight on the illusion of reality we live in!
Sadly, with places like these, Nepal as a spiritual haven remains relatively unknown! Let’s talk about why it is so now:
Extreme yet superficial nationalism
Nepal happens to be one of the most politically active nations in the world with one of the highest voter turnout. Most belong to one party or the other, and to prove that you are a Nepali, you need to wear your hatred towards India on your sleeves. While we don’t want to discount or dilute the excesses of India on Nepal politically and otherwise, this hatred spilling over Indian people has led to Indians being apprehensive from visiting Nepal. Sharing a personal anecdote, I remember once an Indian driver I was travelling with in Delhi lamenting about the treatment he received while he came to Nepal as a tourist. For good or bad, we need to accept the fact that India is our neighbor and a fast growing consumer base, socio-cultural and religious affinity with Nepal, and thus a prospective honeypot!
One of the major problems with today’s youth is that their social media is full of anti-India posts for their alleged claim of being the land of Buddha’s birthplace? Don’t you think that it is sad that we spend our energy on social media as keyboard warriors trying to ‘prove’ Buddha’s birthplace to people who already know? Don’t you think it would be better, if Nepal marketed itself to foreigners directly on the spiritual importance of Lumbini? It is disheartening that even most of the people from places where Buddhism is a majority religion are unaware of the fact that Buddha was born in Nepal. Similarly, religious tourism in India is a billion dollar business. If marketed properly, Nepal is bound to get an upsurge in tourism from just the Indian tourists.
Lack of infrastructure
While Nepal has multiple spiritual power centers, they are mostly situated at high altitudes, oftentimes only accessible through hiking or an uncomfortable jeep ride at best. While, the isolatory nature of these pilgrimage sites has its own merits as the arduous journey is a sort of cleansing in itself, a lot of spiritual seekers do not have the time and stamina to brave the environment! Building accessible roads, or, even better, ropeways like the one in Manakamana, would prove to be a boon to religious tourism in Nepal!
As much as we bring a change in our behavior or infrastructures, we cannot expect spiritual tourism to truly grow unless we learn how to market ourselves. One of the most successful marketing campaigns has been Malaysia’s ‘Truly Asia’ TVC ads. Merely announcing Visit Nepal campaigns by the government is not going to be enough. Government should identify their target customers and run relevant ads. For example, running a tourism ad marketing Lumbini, Swoyambunath, Boudhanath to countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand as Buddha’s birthplace would be prudent. Similarly, Nepal can market holy pilgrimage sites like Pashupatinath, Gosaikunda, Halesi Mahadev to Indians.
That said, to position Nepal as a spiritual brand will need all of us to be the collective, spiritual, brand ambassadors! We are blessed to be living in a land that exudes spirituality from its very being. Our ancestors pondered over the nature of birth, death and reality itself. Our spirituality demands self-reflection, and it does so while presenting you with the most picturesque geography. While infrastructure development is necessary, our USP is the fact that Nepal exists in the first place. The fact that we take pride in Buddha, while ignoring his message that teaches the futility of attachment and pride is the epitome of hypocrisy. Similarly, Shiva is not about Jai Shamvo, weed and intoxicants. Shiva is about renunciation and humility! To convince foreign tourists that Nepal will be a transcendental spiritual journey to them, we need to transcend our superficial nationalism and pride first. Our spiritual brand gets hurt when we spam foreign social media posts and news articles. Maybe the best way of promoting our country as a spiritual brand is by learning to let go of the vanity we carry for something we did not do. Maybe, just maybe, it hinges on us following the spiritual path ourselves and in the process becoming collective brand ambassadors for Nepal!