Along with adventure, culture and nature, Nepal is also known as a religious destination for tourists. Among other sectors, religious tourism sector of the country has also been adversely affected due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As the country was celebrating Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, the government and private sector, among others were preparing for grand events in various religious places. The global outbreak resulted in cancellation of all events.

Even though the government had conducted impact assessment of the country’s tourism sector during the pandemic period, religious tourism has somehow been overlooked.

Stakeholders stated that religious tourism was not given its due priority in the discourse on COVID-19 impact.

“Religious tourism is the second sector, after mountaineering, which welcomes a large number of tourists into the country. Indeed, some discussions were held on impact of COVID-19 on religious tourism.

However, it has not been prioritised the way it should have been,” said Vice-Chairman of Lumbini Development Trust, Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta.

Lumbini alone has lost around 900,000 tourists during this pandemic. In 2019, a total of 173,083 tourists had visited Lumbini via air route.

Moreover, a huge event was scheduled for the Buddha Jayanti this year. Hence, hotels and other businesses in Lumbini had invested additional money. However, the pandemic ruined everything, Sakyaputta added.

“Religious tourism was never prioritised, even during the normal times,” he claimed, adding, “Till date we have not identified the significance of religious tourism on the country’s socio-economic sector.

We are still to conduct a proper study on religious tourism in the country.”

He further said that the country still doesn’t have the exact data of religious tourists, their expenditure and the average length of their stay in the country.

Achyut Guragain, president of Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents, stated that exact data has not been prepared yet about the impact of COVID-19 on religious tourism.

“Generally Hindu and Buddhist tourists travel to Nepal for pilgrimage,” he said. “Due to the pandemic, we have lost millions of our religious tourists and billions of rupees in income, however, we have not analysed it seriously.”

Emphasising that he had initiated Buddhist International Travel Mart in the country, he said, “Each year we receive a large number of religious tourists from India, Burma, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, among other countries. This year, all of them cancelled their trips.”

According to Guragain, Nepal has not fully tapped its religious tourism potential. “Religious tourism is linked with people’s sentiment and somehow it is way more easier to regain religious tourists than other travellers,” he said.

The country’s religious factor not only attracts religious tourists but is an attraction for non-religious tourists too who enjoy the abundant religious and cultural activities in the country, he added.

“Religious tourists do not infer to non-nationals only but also people across the country that travel for pilgrimages.

Thus, all the foreign and domestic religious tourists have been affected due to the COV- ID-19,” said Ghanashyam Khatiwada, executive director of Pashupati Area Development Trust. People visit Pashupatinath not for religious purpose only but also to roam around and for their internal peace, he added.

“However, as it is quite challenging to control the crowd in religious sites, the sector might not have been prioritised,” he said, while admitting that the exact data of the socioeconomic losses in the sector have not been compiled although it is estimated to amount in billions of rupees.

It is to be noted that COV- ID-19 impact assessment of tourism sector conducted by Nepal Tourism Board has also not included any information regarding religious tourism.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation has claimed that the pandemic period has been utilised for infrastructure development of religious areas.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on September 1, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.

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