Feature: Nepal now promoting "spiritual tourism" after avalanche tragedy

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Nepal got a prime spot on the world tourism map for its celebrated mountains, particularly Mount Everest (Qomolangma), but a new form of tourist come-on, known here as "spiritual tourism," is emerging with foreigners visiting the Himalayan nation not to climb the majestic Everest but to absorb the faith and religious mysticism practiced by local residents.

"Since the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, most people have been coming to Nepal for trekking or climbing, but I see well- being and spiritual tourism as another area where we can develop as a tourist attraction and help uplift our economy," Rajan Simkhada, the concept designer of Nepal Yoga Retreat and Spa Center, told Xinhua recently.

According to the Global Wellness Tourism Economy Report 2013, wellness tourists spend on average 130 percent more than the average global tourist.

In the Western world, it is currently in vogue to practice elements of religions from the East, which are older than Western or Middle Eastern religious. Yoga studios, for example, are mushrooming all over the world as are practitioners of meditation, normally associated with Confucianism and Buddhism.

It is no surprise, therefore, that an increasing number of high- end tourists embark on a journey to the very source of ancient religious practices.

Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and the site of many sacred Hindu shrines, is turning into a popular destination for so- called spiritual tourism.

"The Himalayas is one of the world's power centers and Nepal is home to several sacred sites for both Buddhist and Hindu devotees. The opportunity of developing spiritual tourism is there and we just need to grab it," Simkhada said.

Nepal's private sector is trying to bring higher-yield tourists to the country which has long been attracting budget travelers.

Tourism entrepreneurs believe that foreigners going to Nepal for wellness and spiritual-based trips will often spend a fair amount of time visiting and learning about the ancient arts of yoga and meditation.

According to Simkhada, innovative thinking, a return to the roots, and the much-touted public-private partnership will catapult Nepal's tourism sector into the global hall of fame.

"Entrepreneurs have the flexibility and the ideas to improve the country but this must be done in collaboration with the government," Simkhada said.

The private sector is now concentrating its creativity and resources to give foreigners a chance to practice yoga, meditate and spend time in ashrams and other places of religious worship.

At a newly designed temple in Sankhu, located at the outskirts of Kathmandu, one can feel the mysticism and spirituality of which Nepal is known for.

Young Nepalese Hindu Brahmins are trained here to become priests responsible to perform religious rituals in temples and homes after a rigorous training.

"I joined the ashram two years ago. Initially it was very difficult for me as I had to leave my family behind, but now I enjoy worshipping god and performing rituals," Mahesh Kharel, 15 years old, told Xinhua, just after participating in the Aarti ceremony.

Foreigners have the chance to witness the daily rituals performed by Hindu priests and to understand why they became drawn to this religious path.

Dr. Chintamani Gautam, the first Yoga PhD holder of Nepal, said that Westerners know little about Eastern religions and many think of "yoga," which is now gaining popularity worldwide, as just a physical exercise. He hopes that foreigners can learn to integrate the religious and spiritual aspects of this age-old practice which stems from the Vedas which constitute the oldest scriptures of the Hindu religion.

"Yoga is a good way to reintegrate energies particularly in today's world where changes happen very fast," Dr. Gautam said.

Despite its political instability and poor infrastructure, Nepal is expected to attract 861,000 international tourist arrivals in 2014 according to the Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2013 report published by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Nepal's travel and tourism sector directly supported 504,000 jobs in 2013. The figure represents 3.2 percent of the total employment in the country, and this share is expected to rise by 6. 4 percent in 2014.

This year has been labeled as the "Everest Black Day" after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas on the world's highest mountain. Following the tragedy all expeditions have been called off. This made many tourism entrepreneurs realize that because of what happened, there is a need to invest in new forms of tourism. Endi

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