Destination branding of pilgrimage tourismNepal has not worked enough to make destination marketing a viable proposition.
Tourism contributes about 3 percent to Nepal’s gross domestic product. Computed on the basis of backward-forward linkages and the ecosystem, tourism is estimated to account for around 15 percent of economic activities and employment. Pilgrimage tourism is undoubtedly an attractive proposition for Nepal, and policymakers have given it a priority for promotion. But arrival levels depend not on how good the policies are. They depend on how well we disseminate information about the destination and products to the source markets.
The Nepal Tourism Board has made an endeavour to brand Lumbini as a prime tourist destination. The promotional materials, mostly in digital form, communicate the brand image of the birthplace of Lord Buddha. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the branding principle, a visible gap between branding strategy and brand communication exists. Another important point is that a branding exercise that is done in isolation without incorporating information about the peripheral and supplementary sites barely yields the desired economic benefits. It is important that branding in the contemporary context be tech-savvy. But at the same time, it must be ensured that the message reaches the potential buyers of the product. This is exactly where the overall strategy of branding has to involve a 360-degree perspective. This involves an integrated approach of crafting, developing and nurturing the unique selling proposition.
The primary consideration when branding tourism products that involve religion, heritage, adventure, sports, medicine and ecology should be a combination of product differentiation and integrated promotion of the products at the same time. Of course, these criteria need to be customised and the right infrastructure and connectivity must be provided. The importance of reputation, identity and perception as the three fundamental factors remains critical in any kind of destination branding.
The reputation of Lumbini, which is perhaps the most attractive pilgrimage brand in itself, can be enhanced only by making available modern tourism infrastructure and providing real value commensurate with the money spent by the visitors. Additionally, providing quality goods and services along with connectivity remains the chief consideration. More importantly, identifying the places of origin of the tourists becomes a crucial component.
Despite the huge potential for increasing footfall in Lumbini, various factors such as the non-availability of sufficient accommodation, especially during the peak season, has been an obstacle. Besides, connectivity has remained a challenge pending the completion of the international airport currently under construction. Filling aircraft seats will be equally challenging in the days to come without a concerted marketing strategy. In making branding efforts successful, the four As in tourism, namely attraction, accommodation, accessibilities and amenities along with other factors continue to hold the key.
That most of the pilgrimage sites in Nepal have huge tourism potential is an indisputable fact. For instance, the Halesi Mahadev Temple in Khotang, located approximately 221 km from Kathmandu, is a promising site for both Hindus and Buddhists. But the deplorable condition of the roads and perennial water woes along with lack of basic connectivity continue to plague this destination. For instance, tourist resorts operating in the area have to fetch water from Diktel, some 35 km away. Thus, the mere reputation of being a religious site will not suffice for branding the destination as long as it doesn’t conjure up positive perceptions in the minds of visitors.
The case of Chardham as a formidable brand in India exemplifies joint destinations as an alternative strategy and an ideal mechanism for branding religious sites, like the Buddhist Circuit, Ramayana Circuit and Hindu Pilgrimage Circuit, namely Kedarnath, Badrinath, Jagannath, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Prayag and Rameswaram. Despite efforts by India for the identification and formation of pathways for the Hindu Pilgrimage circuit, it has not materialised. Branding initiatives need to be done in tandem for similar or related pilgrimage sites. Promoting all naths, namely Jagannath, Pashupatinath and Doleswar (head of Kedarnath) is a case in point. Similarly, a national initiative in branding can be organised for the Buddhist Circuit from Tilaurakot in Kapilvastu to Sarnath and Kushinagar in India.
Barahkshetra and Janakpur can be branded as a single destination package. One can promote interconnectedness even for lesser-known or modest places by considering such circuits as powerful dimensions in branding. Lumbini, Bauddha, Namobuddha and Swayambhu can be interconnected and branded. The rationale behind this is to present all possibilities and facets of the products and communicate the specific importance of several components of the pilgrimage that tourists may embark upon. Likewise, Lumbini and Muktinath could be an ideal combination.
Branding and promoting these sites jointly makes much business sense as it results in cost-effectiveness. Isolated and sporadic branding exercises carried out in an uncoordinated fashion would be futile. In the current scenario, most of the visitors to these pilgrimage sites are domestic tourists rather than those coming from overseas. It is here that the kind of marketing communication used to promote the product has to keep in mind the intended target audience. Nepal has not worked enough to make destination marketing a viable proposition and a distinct possibility. A focused and expeditious exploration of high-end destination marketing is the need of the hour.
Every effort has to be made to retain the devotees on a religious pilgrimage for a longer and comfortable stay for recreational purpose as well. After all, it can’t be concluded that only pious and staunch devotees visit religious sites. Information seeking and exploration could also be motives for such travellers, and even their needs have to be served well. It is not an exaggeration to state that Nepal has a huge potential for tourism promotion through destination marketing by leveraging a pragmatic strategy. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to exploit the potential fully nor has she been successful in attracting high-end tourists or ensuring their longer stay. At the moment, the website of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation hardly features the niche areas for destination marketing. The content is incomplete and not updated, to say the least.
Nepal should be able to fully harness the unique partnership of tourism entrepreneurs and public policymakers that it has successfully put in place to promote the sector. However, the new focus should be on attracting more foreign quality tourists and developing a diversity of attendant infrastructure to extend their stay here. It is also time to review the effectiveness of some of the strategies such as the appointment of 'tourism ambassadors’ in foreign countries.