India is heavily promoting Buddhist tourism in a bid to attract more tourists from countries with sizable Buddhist populations, including Japan, as part of a strategy to boost foreign tourist arrivals.

India is not only organizing an international Buddhist conclave every other year, but is also aggressively developing what it calls the Buddhist Circuit, which connects key places associated with the religion’s heritage, government officials say.

“We are receiving a minuscule number of Buddhist tourists. . . . just 0.005 percent of the total Buddhist population in the world despite being a key pilgrimage destination for millions of practicing Buddhists around the world,” Suman Billa, the Indian ministry of tourism’s joint secretary, recently told journalists in New Delhi.

“The idea is, even if we are able to remove one zero and make it 0.05 percent, that’ll still bring in billions of dollars into our tourism economy.”

According to tourism ministry officials, India has sanctioned five projects worth 3.61 billion rupees (about $5.5 million) and has also worked with International Finance Corp. of the World Bank group and other agencies to ramp up infrastructure around the Buddhist Circuit.

As both India and Japan are trying to push bilateral travel and tourism with the aim of tripling Indian and Japanese tourists in the next five years, the promotion of Buddhist tourism is one of various initiatives to draw more Japanese to India, Billa said.

As part of its plan, the South Asian nation’s tourism office in Tokyo sponsored the visits of 10 Japanese tour operators, opinion leaders and journalists for the biennial International Buddhist Conclave in 2014 and invited six Japanese travel experts to attend the conclave again in 2016.

The first Indo-Japan Tourism Council and Indo-Japan Tourism Summit were also held in New Delhi in 2016 to explore opportunities to expand travel and tourism between the countries.

According to the latest tourism ministry report, the number of Japanese tourist arrivals in India in 2016 totaled 208,847, compared with only 29,032 in 1981, reflecting growing business and cultural ties between the two countries.

“The majority of these Japanese visiting India are business tourists, accounting over 60 percent, while the rest accounts for leisure tourism” such as trips to Buddhist sites in India, a senior ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

According to the official, popular Buddhist sites among Japanese and other foreign tourists include Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Rajgir, Kushinagar, Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta Caves, Dhauli and Dharamshala.

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