Arrivals to Lumbini rose sharply last year due to improved road access and increased publicity, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) said. The number of pilgrims visiting the birthplace of the Buddha in south-western Nepal reached 1.19 million last year, a jump of 40 percent from the previous year.
The LDT said that important events like the international Buddhist conference and the Saarc Summit held in November had given a major boost to visitor numbers.
Out of the total number of visitors to Lumbini, 902,621 were domestic travellers. Among the foreign visitors, 154,216 were from India, 37,600 from Sri Lanka, 24,733 from Thailand and 20,718 from China.
However, entrepreneurs said that despite an increase in the number of visitors, their contribution to the local economy was nominal because most of them were day-trippers. Around 90 percent of the tourists visit the Maya Devi Temple and a few other places and return the same day.
Local businesses in Lumbini have not been able to benefit from the swelling arrivals due to lack of tour packages and promotional activities, traders said. Most of the tourists come here overland and are handled by Indian tour operators, said Sagar Adhikari, a tourism entrepreneur.
However, entrepreneurs hope that the ongoing upgradation of Gautam Buddha Airport to an international airport will vitalize the local economy. On January 15, the long-planned upgradation of the airport in Bhairahawa, the closest major city to Lumbini, was formally inaugurated.
The importance of the improvement plan lies in the airport’s being the front door to Lumbini which has been rapidly gaining popularity as an international pilgrimage but suffers from poor access which has hindered further growth. The proposed airport is expected to come online by December 2017.
Currently, there are around two dozen high, middle and budget class hotels in Bhairahawa. The trend of building hotels with modern facilities has intensified in Lumbini encouraged by a growth outlook after the international airport goes into operation.
In 2012, the government celebrated Visit Lumbini Year with an ambitious plan to attract one million tourists and promote the Buddha’s birthplace in the international travel market, but the programme fell short of the arrivals target.