Earth movers are at work trying to make up for lost time in completing what will be the Gautam Buddha International Airport . The Bhairawa-Butwal corridor is a six-lane highway with new hotels, steel and cement factories, residential areas, and even breweries.
Everywhere you look in Kapilvastu and Rupandehi districts these days, there are signs of economic boom . The hidden potential for tourism, trade, and industries in this Central Tarai region bordering India that has remained untapped for so long, is about to be unleashed.
Take Lumbini. More than 200,000 tourists from India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Korea, China and Japan enter Nepal every year through Bhairawa for pilgrimage at the birthplace of the Buddha . But Nepal never really benefited because most of them came for day visits as a part of the Buddhist circuit tour package in India.
“So far, Lumbini has been just a day stop for Indian tour packages to Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. Some even bring their own food,” explains Chandra Bahadur Thapa, general secretary of Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents for Province 5.
All this looks set to change. This week Nepal and India signed an agreement to jointly promote the Ramayana and Buddhist Circuits. The Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) has also come up with new Buddhist Circuit tour packages that highlight other pilgrimage sites in Nepal like Kathmandu, Halesi, Muktinath, Kakrebihar and even Mansarovar in Tibet.
The idea is to make Lumbini a gateway to the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, and not the other way round. All this is preparation to capitalise on the new international airport near Lumbini, which has been delayed by five years because of political corruption.
Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari is a man in a hurry. “There are 500 million Buddhists in the region, which is a huge market close to home. But we cannot benefit if we do not have the infrastructure. Even before the airport is completed, we need hotels, highways, airways, and other facilities in place,” he says.
To be sure, the district is already humming with activity. Leading the trend is the 5-star Tiger Palace Resort owned by the Australian company Silver Heritage. With a foreign investment of $52 million, the largest yet in Nepal’s hospitality industry, the resort boasts of Nepal’s longest swimming pool and biggest casino. The Butwal-Bhairawa corridor is already a hub of domestic economic activity: two national highways—the east-west Mahendra and the north-south Siddhartha— intersect here, and other tourist hubs like Palpa, Chitwan, and Pokhara are a few hours drive away. Butwal is now Nepal’s fastest growing city, offering modern hotels for a new breed of visitors who are not necessarily pilgrims.
New industries have come up in an area already known as an industrial strip (Jagadamba Steel, Ruslan Vodka, Warsteiner Beer, Hulas Auto Craft, Panchakanya Steels, Brij Cement, etc), which means hotel accommodation is in high demand. Not only are conferences and major events of the companies held at these hotels, but increasingly, social functions like weddings and guniu-choli.
“I am quite impressed by the growing affluence of this area. We are seeing many repeat customers, which means that the domestic market here can afford luxury hospitality, and has developed a taste for it,” says Brett Model, general manager of Tiger Palace Resort. “We hope that our success will attract more foreign investment in the hospitality industry here.”
With its proximity to the border, the resort also attracts Indian customers, who may not be particularly interested in Lumbini. Strict restrictions on alcohol and gambling in India have made Tiger Palace a draw, and there are many who come in for a few hours and go back before the border curfew at 9PM.
Indian families enjoy weekend getaways, and every so often there is a destination wedding, with the entire marriage party camping out at the hotel for a few days for all the ceremonies. Tiger Palace has already hosted a dozen such weddings, with customers coming in from as far as Delhi, Mumbai and Kanpur for a luxury ‘foreign wedding’.
The region’s new businesses, industries and hotels are also excited by the prospect of an international airport nearby, so that access will be easier and faster. More casinos and hotels are coming up to cater to the Indian market.
All eyes are now on the completion of the Gautam Buddha International Airport. After being stalled often, the project is expected to be completed in early 2019, making Lumbini more accessible to two distinctly different types of tourists: Buddha devotees, as well as free-spending tourists from across India.
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