Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without – Buddha

LUMBINI: Mikel Dunham’s interview with Lisa Choegyal

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on March 11, 2012

Lisa Choegyal is a tourism consultant who works throughout the Asia Pacific region, specializing in pro-poor sustainable tourism planning and marketing. With a background in the private sector, she was for over 20 years Director of Marketing of Tiger Mountain, Nepal’s pioneer trekking, adventure and wildlife operator. Based in Kathmandu, she has worked since 1992 as a senior associate of TRC Tourism (formerly Tourism Resource Consultants) in Wellington, New Zealand  ( Lisa was Team Leader of the ADB Ecotourism Project 2000-2001, DFID tourism monitor on TRPAP 2001-2005, tourism-marketing specialist for the ADB SASEC program 2004-2008, and prepared the UK Aid DFID Great Himalaya Trail development program for SNV Nepal 2006-2010. She serves on a number of non-profit boards related to tourism and conservation, and is New Zealand Honorary Consul to Nepal since 2010.


02-nun at Lumbini

DUNHAM: How do you assess the current framework for development in Lumbini, the framework that is already and has been in place for a long time?

CHOEGYAL: The institutional framework is interesting with so many stakeholders, different factions and historical complexities. UNESCO has a crucial role to play to preserve its world heritage status. The Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) is the obvious main custodian although it needs to be evolved into an Authority rather than a Trust. It is typical of the current political scenario that existing institutions become politicized. . Perhaps it was felt, in this case, that it is easier to create a parallel organization and just blow LDT out of the water. Three billion dollars is a convincing figure.

I’ve worked on Lumbini, from a tourism perspective, on and off, for the last twenty years but most recently with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) tourism infrastructure study, where I was part of a consulting team that designed the South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) tourism components. SASEC is an ADB grouping of five countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India – actually the north and northeast States of India – Nepal and Sri Lanka. We worked for six years as tourism sector advisors on the SASEC program with our firm, TRC Tourism, which is based in Wellington, New Zealand. SASEC was modeled on the ADB’s Greater Mekong Sub-Region tourism program, on which TRC had also been tourism advisors (Cambodia, China (PRC, specifically Yunnan and Guangxi), Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam).

In many ways, South Asia was easier than the Mekong because we were dealing with countries that were used to working together in tourism, and had been cooperating and selling joint packages for decades — whereas in the Greater Mekong, many of them had been emerging from long-term conflicts. We were able to make a lot of headway in the tourism sector in South Asia, whereas other SASEC sectors, such as water resources roads and large-scale infrastructure had a much more complex agenda.

Lumbini emerged as being one of the priority areas in the sub-region for tourism development using a sub-regional rationale, linked, as it is, very convincingly, with the footsteps of the Lord Buddha circuit in India. Of course it is also an incredibly important national tourism site for Nepal.

DUNHAM: What was your personal assessment?

CHOEGYAL: We did our ADB SASEC work in a number of areas from 2003 to 2008. The project TRC designed and currently under implementation with the government of Nepal is at Bhairahawa and Lumbini – the upgrading to regional international status of the airport at Bhairahawa Airport, road linkages between the town and the other nine sacred sites, visitor interpretation and infrastructure improvements in the sacred garden, and capacity building with LDT.

I do have to stress that, since the 2008 report, many reviews, verifications and discussions have been undertaken. Of course is has become a national project, whereas is was originally a sub-regional one. Nepal and India have been closely consulted all the way through, and we all thought it made sense and was in Nepal’s interest to develop Lumbini in coordination with the Indian Buddhist sites.

So what is being implemented now, is not necessarily exactly the same as we designed although we understand it’s pretty close. The upgrading of the airport is important for access. A big part of our project was what we called “inclusive tourism development” in and around Lumbini trying to be sure the local people were involved in economic benefits from tourism, and making Lumbini more attractive to encourage longer stay and greater spend by visitors.

DUNHAM: Would that include all the other archeological sites?

CHOEGYAL: Yes, all the nine archeological sites around Lumbini (being Sishania, Kudan, Gotihawa, Tilaurakot, Niglihawa, Aurorakot, Sagarhawa, Devdaha and Ramgram). Our thrust and advocacy was that, unless the local people are involved in livelihood activities so as reap some benefits from tourism, this on-going state of instability and the integrity of Lumbini is always going to be an issue.

 Lumbini has so many stakeholders, whether they be spiritual, archeological, historians, and Buddhists, including different sorts of Buddhists from many many countries, that it has historically been hard to solve the big issues. Nepal must retain its leadership role with stakeholders and donors, and UNESCO has an important role.

However, from a tourism perspective, it is amazing that tourism and visitor management have never actually been factored into any of the Lumbini planning. It’s not part of the original UNDP Kenzo Tange master plan. As you know, there are lots of recent planning initiatives – many of which appear to be overlapping. However too often, tourism and the visitor management are neglected. From a practical perspective, that is the big issue there: how to look after and provide facilities for pilgrims and other tourists.

And yet tourism is the great potential. And not only the pilgrims, who are always going to be important at a spiritual destination such as Lumbini where sacred values are paramount. But what we have never yet cracked is the potential to attract the many other sorts of tourists currently visiting Nepal – international general tourists, foreign trekkers, cultural and business visitors as well as domestic and Indian segments.

Lumbini, is one of Nepal’s most important, iconic, significant, potential tourism attractions – right up there with Mount Everest – spiritually, culturally –

DUNHAM: Historically?

CHOEGYAL: Absolutely. It’s an historical Mecca, which is probably the wrong word, but it’s a word I see being used with stories dating back 2000 years. But as a focus, Lumbini is a wonderful asset for Nepal’s tourism inventory. But it is always potential and never realized – up until now, it is very much under-utilized except by the pilgrimage segments.

Lumbini could and should be a universal spiritual destination, in addition to Buddhists for which it will always hold extraordinary qualities. We can maximize this very interesting situation: The birthplace of Lord Buddha in a largely Hindu country, surrounded by Islamic local communities.

03-Nepali tourists in Lumbini

So it has all the kind of ingredients to become a focus for spiritual tourism, with relevance for all sorts of other people, even including our atheist friend, Kanak![Choegyal is referring to an interview I conducted with Kanak Mani Dixit last week. Link here for Kanak Mani Dixit interview]

The big issue in tourism planning is not only to make a more interesting destination for visitors which encourages them to stay longer and spend more, but also to involve local people from the area in livelihood benefits. Building a fence to keep local villagers out, which was how it was conceived in the 1970s master plan, is today a discredited and unworkable management approach. Until we can successfully involve local communities in business activities and stakeholder partnerships, it’s unlikely to ever really work as a destination.


CHOEGYAL: Because it is unsustainable. You will continue to have the local political issues. And there will be no incentive for the wider communities to protect or cherish such an important place. The gap between the haves and the have nots will become wider and wider.

We’ve seen, time and again, all over Asia and in Nepal, if you can succeed in get the locals engaged, that’s when you achieve successful natural or heritage conservation, and a harmonious local situation.

Tourism as a tool to reduce poverty is a stated priority of the government of Nepal. The Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Program [TRPAP] based in the Nepal Tourism Board from 2001 to 2005,was active in six districts, of which Lumbini was one. It was ground-truthing and mainstreaming pro-poor tourism, managed by UNDP and supported by SNV and was largely funded by the British government: DFID UKAid for which I was the tourism specialist monitioring progress.

TRPAP was difficult because, to be honest, we learned to do “tourism without tourists” as it was the height of the insurgency. It was really hard to get people into these new areas, which is what we were now trying to do using the Great Himalaya Trail idea.

Lumbini was one of the more successful projects because tourists were still able to visit. TRPAP involved local people with a range of livelihood activities, including handicrafts, guiding and providing transportation at the site such as bicycle rickshaws, and electric boats on the central canal.

04-Nepali Vendors at Lumbini

Lets not underrate Lumbini’s really good potential as a hugely important spiritual destination, which, when well managed, can benefit all its various stakeholders, the national tourism industry as well as the local community.

I’m sure that is why it’s attracting so much interest from the donors and the various different constituents, Buddhist and otherwise.  In addition to pilgrims and religious visitors, it has the potential to appeal to a much wider range of tourists

Lumbini has had fantastic growth. In 2007 when we were doing our study, they had increased 43% over the previous year. Last year 2011 it was 29% up over 2010  with 128,259 foreign visitors. This is fantastically successful growth. In addition, LDT estimates about 75,000 Indians and 400,000 Nepalis visit every year.

But when you look at it closely, and that’s the key, the foreign tourists who are visiting are overwhelmingly pilgrims with very short stays. The majority are Sri Lankan  (nearly 53,000 in 2011) and Thai (over 26,000), Myanmar (12,500), China (nearly 9,000), and some are from South Korea (6,000).

DUNHAM: When you say “Chinese” are you including Taiwanese?

CHOEGYAL: No, I mean the People’s Republic of China. Actually, Taiwan figures are slightly down, and they don’t show up as significant numbers – only 900 in 2011.

When we analyze the 29% growth, it’s mainly from the Sri Lankans and Chinese, who have doubled in size in 2010-2011, some from Myanmar and Thailand, and a bit from South Korea. So, in other words, the growth comes from the core Buddhist pilgrims.

We’re still not succeeding in attracting non-Buddhists. In fact, even some of the Buddhist countries are down; interestingly, Japan is slightly down in 2011. Tourists from Britain and the United States, their arrivals are down as well.

Whereas it sounds exciting that we are seeing these huge increases, year after year, actually, the visitor patterns tend to be such that Nepal benefits very little.

And the people around Lumbini benefit even less. The visitors come into Lumbini for sometimes less than a day as part of the circuit with Indian sites associated with the Lord Buddha. Sri Lankans and Burmese, for example, typically will stay in the monasteries and they’re not high spenders. I don’t know enough about the current Chinese, and Thai segments visiting Lumbini, but certainly, when we looked at it, they were very devout, and they were there for pilgrimage purposes.

05-Indian monastery

So although the numbers have increased, the prosperity of the local people and the contribution in Nepal’s tourism foreign exchange and other earnings is pretty minimal. So those are the challenges: to attract other visitor segments, and to extend visitors patterns so that there’s more to see and more to spend money on in Nepal .

We haven’t got very exact figures on Indians and Nepalis visiting Lumbini, because they’re not counted but during our study in 2007, we estimated about a half-million – similar to LDT’s records today. Nepalis go for picnics and recreation. And the Indians come across the border without being counted, so it could be more than a half-million.

But Indians and Nepalis are an important segment, even if they don’t spend much. Probably, they are not really pilgrims because there aren’t that many Indians and Nepalis, who are Buddhists – but rather people who are seeking spiritual recreation and who are interested in such a destination of  world significance.

DUNHAM: I would think that one of the ways to entice people to stay more than one day is to develop the grounds of the other nearby sacred sites.

CHOEGYAL: Well, that’s what we thought. But, unless you are a pilgrim – with the exception of Tilaurakot / Kapilvastu – the sites aren’t all that desperately interesting. And that’s the other thing: Even the current Sacred Garden site is not that interesting for a non-Buddhist, because it’s not spiritually evocative enough or it’s not well-interpreted enough.

The key is to tell the stories and to improve the interpretation so that you can evoke this incredibly important historical, spiritual site.

DUNHAM: Yes, well, one of the things that Kanak Mani Dixit said the other day, when I interviewed him on this subject, involved horticulture: His suggestion was that they develop the Sacred Garden with indigenous plantings and forest true to the place and time of the historical Buddha.

CHOEGYAL: Yes, I agree, that was a lovely idea. I couldn’t agree with him more.  Create an historically accurate backdrop so that you can evoke what it was like for Queen Maya Devi to be giving birth in this extraordinary place.

I think we all agree that there is a serious issue with the beauty and atmosphere of the building that currently houses the actually spot of the Lord Buddha’s birth.

It’s great to have an actual spot verified, found for us by archeologists. Currently, UNESCO specialists are adding to the stories and building the historical picture with their work.

There is a wonderful opportunity to have an international competition and to make Buddha’s birth site housed by some fantastic award-winning building that feels sacred and peaceful. In addition to aesthetic concerns, the design must provide basic facilities and amenities that are needed by pilgrims and other visitors.

Actually, if you’ve ever watched the progression of the pilgrims through the building – if you observe the arrival process and the pattern the visitors take – you will see that it’s really hard for them to worship or to place offerings on that spot. It doesn’t work. There’s no place to prostrate. There’s no way that Buddhists can do the things they need to do: to prostrate and to make offerings of khatas or flowers—even  to sit peacefully and meditate.

06-Inside Maya Devi Temple

In all fairness, the current structure was put up as a temporary arrangement to replace the tin shed. It was constructed to make the point that this was Nepal’s site. Nepal can be very generous about sharing the birth site with Buddhist nations all around the world, but actually, the fact is, it is in Nepal and Nepal should be taking the leadership and responsibility of leading whatever developments are going on there. Now is an opportunity for Nepal to replace it with a building that has international appeal.

Kul Chandra Gautam made this point beautifully on your blog. [Link here for my Kul Chandra Gautam interviewYes, we’ve got the opportunities to involve India and China, it’s a spiritual site, it should be not politicized, but it should be managed transparently so that  it works for all the various sorts of people that  are currently and could, in the future, be visiting Lumbini.

But Nepal must lead!

And in fairness, that’s the reason they threw up that temporary building , which the former UNESCO regional director described as a “ghastly gymnasium”, so as to establish its leadership and not to be pushed around by other countries – who were threatening to completely eclipse Nepal. The building really doesn’t deliver for anybody.

DUNHAM: What other countries?

CHOEGYAL: Actually, in those days, I think it was the Japanese. They’ve contributed greatly down there over the years. And everybody has his or her own way of worshiping. But, again, Nepal really needs to lead. And the point Kanak Mani Dixit made about standardizing the Nepali look of the monasteries – which is now too late to do that – but I think it’s a good point. Nepal should be taking the lead in Lumbini in a way that works for Nepal. And for the local people of Nepal.

But going back to the original question about the institutions: the conclusion of our study is that a capacitated LDT should lead the development work – and of course the politics have changed since then. However, LDT was designed specifically for the task of implementing the UNDP master plan of Lumbini. And it would be a real pity to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So part of our program was to provide a lot of capacity building for the LDT; working with them and strengthening them into an institution that could act as an Authority.

UNESCO is an incredibly important body although it is constrained for lack of funds. In tourism, we consider World Heritage Site status as something very important, something that has tangible benefits. People visit places because they are World Heritage Sites. As a marketing tool, it a very useful.

Nepal has always had a very good relationship with UNESCO. We’ve had our moments when the sites were put on the endangered list, if they were not properly looked after. The Department of Archeology and the Nepal government do take it very seriously, although enforcing the WHS regulations is not always easy for them.

My main point is that we’ve got lots of really important stakeholders and a solid planning framework. My plea is that tourism and visitor management is taken seriously – which it never has been.

DUNHAM: Taken seriously by the government?

CHOEGYAL: By everyone involved in the planning. They don’t have a tourism or visitor management voice on any of the planning teams.

Our firm, TRC Tourism, has been working with the UNESCO World Heritage office in Paris to help develop guidelines for tourism at World Heritage sites. UNESCO has sometimes been slow to recognize tourism as a development solution and as an advocate for conservation and protection.

But now, along with a lot of donor agencies and international development agencies, tourism increasingly is being seen as a tool for poverty reduction, as long as it is controlled and well-managed.

It’s true that tourism has threatened some of the world’s major monuments and natural areas. But the solutions are to manage and control tourism, and to involve local people to benefit.

DUNHAM: But how do you increase the numbers of non-Buddhist visitors to Lumbini?

CHOEGYAL: Interpretation is the key to making it more attractive to non-Buddhists. And I would also venture to say that interpretation would interest Buddhists as well. Lots of Buddhists are interested in the historical side. And in terms of interpretation, we suggested initiatives like a visitor’s center at the new entrance.

We also suggested providing ways that would encourage people to stay longer at the site, making them want to spend more time there – that they could walk, take a bike, or take that boat down the central canal.

07-Lumbini canal

The idea of Kenzo Tange master plan was to have that long approach in order to make it into a pilgrimage. But there are practicalities. You also have to realize that a lot of pilgrims are old and the weather down there is often hot and wet.

Our suggestions included:

A new integrated visitors’ center.

A venue for local transport operators, so that local people can benefit from that.

Upgraded building spaces for local businesses, such as handicrafts and local produce. And other local businesses to operate close to the visitor center.

Addressing the water supply issues and toilets in the garden area. The water supply is a technical concern that ADB is good at. They have had a lot of problems with water not staying in the canal.

On-site interpretation signs and displays. It would not be difficult and it would greatly enhance the experience.

Beautification: Especially for the new entrance and the surroundings of the visitors’ center and car park.

A solid waste management system, which may or may not have been solved by now.
The development plan to update the current master plan, is being undertaken, perhaps, by too many groups. There are a number of plans coming up, as you are aware.

One main point was the importance of expanding the visits to the other sites, and signage, and having local villagers trained as site guides and increasing their awareness of the importance of conservation of the sites, and understanding the visitor industry and what the visitors actually want, so that the local people can play a greater role in deriving benefits.

DUNHAM: And all of this has to be done with absolute transparency, right?

CHOEGYAL: Yes, particularly since there are so many stakeholder and countries involved. I couldn’t agree with you more. But again, it’s Nepal that has to take the leadership role. Maybe that’s the purpose of this new high-level committee. It’s just a bit of a worry, the politicization of it and the apparent lack of concern for the core values of such an important site for both religious and other tourists.

One Response to “LUMBINI: Mikel Dunham’s interview with Lisa Choegyal”

  1. Kristine said

    Fine way of telling, and fastidious article to obtain information regarding my presentation focus, which i
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