Religious violence may be on the rise and the Taliban still a threat, but Pakistan is hoping a rich Buddhist heritage will help it boost international tourism to its troubled northwest.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with its balmy climate in the mountains and its wealth of history on the border with Afghanistan, was once a playground for colonial adventurers and a favourite holiday destination for upper-crust Pakistanis.
But after the 9/11 attacks ushered in war in Afghanistan and an insurgency against the Pakistani government, it has become synonymous with Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militants who have killed thousands in recent years.
Wealthier Pakistanis and Westerners stopped visiting, scared away by attacks and the threat of kidnap, but the provincial government is now trying to lure thousands of visitors from wealthy Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.
A group of around 20 Buddhist monks from South Korea made the journey to the monastery of Takht-e-Bahi, 170 kilometres from Islamabad, and close to the tribal areas that are a haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked militants.
“We really felt it is our home town, it was a great feeling which it is not possible to describe in words,” Jeon Woon Deok, a senior Korean monk, told AFP by email of the visit last year. “We only regret that we waited so long to come here.”
And it was no straightforward pilgrimage.
The monks defied appeals from Seoul to abandon their trip for safety reasons and were guarded by Pakistani security forces on their visit to the monastery, built of ochre-coloured stone and nestled on a mountainside.
From around 1000 years BC until the seventh century AD, northern Pakistan and parts of modern Afghanistan formed the Gandhara kingdom, where Greek and Buddhist customs mixed to create what became the Mahayana strand of the religion.
The monk Marananta set out from what is now northwest Pakistan to cross China and spread Buddhism on the Korean peninsula during the fourth century. The gardens of Takht-e-Bahi host picnicking families and daydreaming teenagers, as well as students from nearby Koranic schools. But foreign visitors are rare.
“There used to be foreign tourists here in the past, but after the attacks there are hardly any,” said local guide Iftikhar Ali.
The flow of adventurous tourists from east Asia is no more than a trickle at the moment – Ali said he saw only one or two visitors a month on average.
“For them this place is like Mecca,” said Zulfiqar Rahim, the head of the Gandhara Art and Culture Association, which is dedicated to the promotion of Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage.
Last year monks from Bhutan also came to visit, but the government wants to boost numbers quickly.
“We are currently working to promote religious and archaeological Buddhist tourism,” said Syed Jamaluddin Shah, the deputy minister of tourism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The authorities are even planning package tours for visitors from China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, including trips to the Buddhist sites at Takht-e-Bahi, Swat, Peshawar and Taxila, near Islamabad.
“The tourism potential is enormous. If each person who comes spends $1200 with hotel costs and all the rest, and a million people come, that makes a billion dollars,” said Rahim,
“And we’re not talking about a million people but 50 million Mahayana Buddhists in Korea, China and Japan.”
But there is a long way to go. It will be difficult to overcome huge security problems, poor tourist infrastructure and the challenges of getting a visa and permission to travel to high-risk areas.
Enormous floods in 2010 caused further damage, although the United States has since provided $5.4-million to help revive the local economy and rehabilitate tourism in Swat.
For now it is mostly local visitors who come to the remains of the Buddhist sites in Pakistan. Reflecting on his country’s woes, Sajjad, a teacher gazes at a Buddha statue and sighs: “We need this calm so much.”