Plan to promote the ‘Buddhist circuit train' in China to boost sagging visits

Eyeing China's fast expanding outbound tourism market, which has, so far, largely bypassed India, the Indian government has launched a tourism campaign targeting the world's fastest-growing Buddhist population with a direct sales pitch: visit India and reconnect with your faith.

Indian officials hope that promoting the ‘Buddhist circuit train' in China, which has been in operation since 2007 and stops along several pilgrimage sites in northern India, can help boost the low numbers of Chinese tourists who travel to India.

They have begun marketing the train here as a way for Chinese to reconnect with their faith, but “in comfort.”

India's tourism promotion efforts in China have, however, been hampered in recent months by delays in appointing a representative to lead the India Tourism Beijing office, which has functioned without a director here since June.

Officials said bureaucratic delays in New Delhi had been behind the failure to replace the previous director, Shoeb Samad, who returned to India in June, even though a successor had already been identified.

The office is now being directed by the head of India Tourism based in Singapore, Rajesh Talwar, who is already responsible for the entire Southeast Asian market.

India has, so far, failed to grab a slice of China's thriving tourism industry. Every year, Chinese tourists spend in excess of $40 billion overseas.

Of the estimated 47 million Chinese who travel abroad every year, around 102,000 — or only 0.21 per cent — travelled to India, according to 2009 statistics. Vietnam, South Korea and Japan each attracted more than 10 times that number.

Through the Buddhist circuit train, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) and India Tourism are attempting to attract two fast-growing population segments in China — followers of Buddhism, who, according to estimates, number between 100 and 200 million, and a fast expanding outbound tourism market.

“India is blessed to have a lot of pilgrimage sites connected with the Buddha's life,” Rakesh Tandon, managing director of the IRCTC, told an audience of Chinese tour operators and travel agents at the launch of the campaign here on Monday. He promised them a “safe and fully-airconditioned” pilgrimage experience, looking to address Chinese travellers' two biggest concerns about travelling to India — widespread perceptions of lack of safety and the hot tropical climate.

The train takes travellers, over the course of a week, to several cities associated with the Buddha's life. Starting in New Delhi, the ‘Mahaparinirvan Express' stops at places such as Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Nalanda, Kushinagar and eventually, Lumbini in Nepal, the Buddha's birthplace.

In Beijing, Mr. Tandon said the success of trains focused on pilgrimage sites had prompted the Indian Railways to launch another special train service next month, starting from Chandigarh, focusing on important Sikh temples in India.

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