NEW DELHI – The Buddha is smiling, again. For years, the Buddhist travel segment has been lagging but things are looking up, say travel agents specialising in the segment. According to estimates, Buddhist travel accounted for about 10-12% of the total of 4.63 million tourists who visited India in 2006-07.

As infrastructure in the Buddhist circuit gets better, the interest of pilgrims from Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and now, even Mainland China, is growing. There are enquiries for the circuit from the US too. Buoyed by this opportunity, some travel agents are even setting up their own hotels in various locations to augment room capacity.

The organised part of this segment is still small, with the total number of package tours being sold not more than 25,000 a year. Most travellers from neighbouring countries, such as Sri Lanka and Bhutan, come on their own and spend little. A handful of travel companies sell packaged Buddhist tours in the international market. Lajpat Rai of Lotus Trans Travels set up his business on a monk’s suggestion.

“I was staying with him in a temple in Naha, Okinawa, Japan. He suggested setting up a business to help the Japanese get better access to the Buddhist circuit in India. In fact, my first Buddhist group from Japan was from this temple,” says Rai.

A new company Trail Blazers Tours has also ventured into the Buddhist travel business. They have clients from Korea, China and have even got enquiries from the US. “Recently, we opened an office in Korea and we would have already doubled our business since we started a year back,” says Homa Mistry, director, Trail Blazer Tours. In the past, pilgrims’ progress was made tough with inadequate infrastructure in and around the circuit, across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Either the roads were non-existent or there weren’t enough hotels to stay in. However, over the last few years, roads have improved and an international airport at Gaya too has helped.

Sensing the opportunity that this segment provides, agents like Lajpat Rai and Naresh Sharma, MD of Inpac Travels, have set up hotels in and around the Buddhist trail. Rai’s company has hotels in Bodhgaya, Kushinagar, Sravasti and Delhi, and is building two more at Gorakhpur and Sanchi by 2010. For its four hotels, Inpac Travels has invested Rs 55 crore. Soon, they will add another small hotel at Sankasya, investing an additional Rs 5 crore.

“Adding hotels to our portfolio has helped us grow our travel business,” says Sharma. But issues still persist. Better roads are not complemented by air-conditioned buses. The airport might have been built, but there is no direct flight from Delhi to Gaya (there are flights from Bangkok to Gaya and one is expected from Osaka as well). Besides, there are no wayside facilities. And to top it all, there are no leisure or shopping opportunities either for the tourists.

Now Rai is planning 12 direct chartered flights from Japan next season. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) pitched in with a Rs 395-crore loan last year, to be disbursed over seven years, for developing infrastructure in important Buddhist sites in Uttar Pradesh — Sarnath, Kushinagar, Kapilvastu, Sravasti and Sankasya — an exercise which is estimated to cost Rs 680 crore. The difference would hopefully be visible next year and if, simultaneously, flight connectivity to Gaya is improved, Sharma is optimistic that they would clock at least 40% growth.