While the visa-free Kartarpur corridor for Sikhs has stirred up some controversy, it is on the whole hailed as a positive confidence building measure. Though it may accrue benefits of regional peace and posterity in the long run, there are medium term dividends to be had in the form of religious tourism.
There are over 20 million Sikhs living in India, most of which are concentrated in bordering Punjab. A survey by World Bank indicates that Pakistan religious tourism sector has a captured market for Sikhs since two-fifths of respondents considered it a religious duty to visit shrines in Pakistan.
Currently, Sikhs line up to stand on a platform to be able to view the Kartarpur temple. The Border Security Force has specially constructed “Darshan Sthal” by providing binoculars to visiting devotees for a view of the Gurdwara.
For example, the Golden Temple in Amritsar in India attracts about million visitors per year making it one of the most visited religious destination in the world. The Golden temple is considered the fourth religious site, while the first Gurdwara in the world was built in Guru Nanak in the 1520s in Kartarpur. This indicates the potential gains from Sikh religious tourism alone.
During 2008-2012, World Bank estimates that an average of 6,000 pilgrims visited per year, despite the quota of 7,500 extended to visitors with Indian passports. The arduous visa application process with stringent background checks and uncertain outcomes is much to blame.
A study commissioned by World Bank’s task team estimated that if proper facilities were provided and marketing efforts made, tourism could exceed 300,000 persons per years which could yield economic benefits of up to $300 million per year. The opening of Kartarpur corridor is a step in that direction.
While Kartarpur facilitates Indians alone, higher activity in the temples could also pull in the Sikh diaspora based in Britain, US and Canada. Survey indicates that a visit generates an average $2,700 over ten days per person. In addition, Pakistan based tour operators survey responses indicated that an average diaspora family spends $3,000-5,000 on shopping once they visit.
Flourishing local religious tourism allows ancillary services to flourish. Lessons can be learnt from the Indian Punjab side. The Khalsa Hertiage Memorial Complex located at Anandpur Sahib was built to attract tourists and pilgrims to shrines associated with Guru Tegh Bahadur. Within three years of the inauguration, growth in tourist arrivals resulted in the establishment of 3,015 firms in the concerned sector.
However, extending visa free facilities is not enough. Specific infrastructure such as boarding and lodging facilities, access roads, road-side facilities, parking, pedestrian areas, are some of the essentials required to sustain religious tourism. Kartarpur has the potential to become an effective tourism development vehicle but a lot more work needs to be put in before Pakistan can start benefiting from religious tourism.