Bangkok, Dec. 22: India is trying to team up with international tour operators to market Bodh Gaya in Bihar as a major tourist attraction by advertising extensively, whether in the spectacular Temple of Emerald Buddha here or in the exotic beach resorts of Pattaya and Jomtien, 100 km away.
India is offering history and a Buddhist pilgrimage to tourists against attractive shopping festivals offered by neighbours such as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
At a time when Thailand is planning to reorient its tourism policy to compete with Malaysia and Singapore, India’s efforts have paid off remarkably well. The Thai government promptly despatched a 12-member delegation to Bodh Gaya in response to a similar team from India led by minister of state for civil aviation Sreepat Nayak.
Thailand has accepted India’s first friendly overtures towards its outbound tourists, with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra agreeing to sign a bipartite trade and tourism treaty proposed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The Government of India has decided to open its skies to Thai airline operators, who have shown considerable interest in running chartered flights between Bangkok and Bodh Gaya.
An official in the Thailand Prime Minister’s Office said direct flights by Indian Airlines from Bodh Gaya was the first step to ferrying Buddhist pilgrims to their Mecca.
“India and Thailand share a common cultural and religious affinity. The pilgrims from Japan and Korea, who land here first, would now be willing to reach Bodh Gaya,” said deputy secretary general to the Prime Minister of Thailand, Apinan Pavanarit.
Thailand is also considering singing a free trade zone treaty with India, Pavanarit said. “If everything goes well, the agreement would be formalised by 2007,” he added.
Indian ambassador in Thailand Leela K. Ponappa told a group of visiting reporters that India and Thailand were currently involved in 20 joint ventures that have improved cultural ties and paved the way for a truly meaningful bilateral relationship.
Already, there’s a mad scramble among Indians to set up hotels in Bangkok and other tourist centres in Thailand. Bollywood star Sunil Shetty is believed to have financially backed one of the 20 Indian restaurants and hotels coming up in Thailand.
“Indian culinary got an easy space in Thailand, as a large number of Western tourists look for Indian food, taking a break from the Thai food, based on sea-fish or vegetables,” said Indian restaurateur Jaydeep “Jeddy” Yadav.
A Bengali entrepreneur, S. Banerjee, runs one of the most popular restaurant, Ali Baba, on Pattaya’s Middle Road. “Even star category hotels are hiring Indian cooks to provide a variety to their culinary choices,” he said.
Despite the groundwork, Thai or Japanese Buddhist pilgrims are still ignorant of the long-winding Buddhist pilgrim trail in India because of the lack of tourism infrastructure in most of these places.