The economy of religious tourism

There is a dire need for branding and exhibiting the religious sites

The economy of religious tourism


akistan is blessed with a multifaceted trove of tourism. It possesses a magnificent blend of cultural, religious and natural tourism opportunities. Sadly, however, we have lagged behind in branding it. The religious tourism alone, if exploited adroitly, can contribute vastly to our economy.

There are famous sites belonging to three major religions: Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism in Pakistan. As per the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) record, there are a total of 480 tourist destinations in the country out of which 120 are religious sites. An estimated 900,000 international tourists visit Pakistan every year. The tourism industry contributes up to 1.2 percent of the employment in the country and rakes in $3,214.9 million; about 1.2 percent of the GDP.

Domestic travel and tourism spending constitutes 90.8 percent of the total tourism spending. Pakistan was ranked 83rd out of 117 countries, in the Travel and Tourism Development Index (TTDI) Report-2021 of the World Economic Forum (WEF). With the provision of requisite facilities, religious tourism can be enhanced many fold.

Beside Islamic sites, there are many Buddhist temples and stupas and Hindu and Sikh temples in Pakistan. Religious ceremonies and rituals are performed at most of these sites regularly. However, despite having some of the very important religious sites we have not been able to generate substantial revenue.

It is important to realise that religious beliefs and practices are sacrosanct to their followers. Acknowledging, respecting and accommodating these beliefs generates immense goodwill.

Pakistan does not have a significant population of Buddhists today. However, the region area has been the epicentre of Buddhist teachings. The famous Buddhist sites at Gandhara and Taxila are known worldwide. At Taxila, there are more than 50 archaeological sites in a 30 kilometre radius. These sites are renowned for their contribution to the Buddhist culture and glory. According to the PTDC, around 2,000 Buddhists visit the religious heritage in Pakistan. This is far below the true potential.

Sikhs form approximately 0.01 percent of the population of our country. But there are some very significant sites associated with the religion in Pakistan. These include Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, dedicated to the founder of Sikhism. It is extremely important to Sikhs in Pakistan and around the world. The temple is also known as Janam Asthan.

Nearly 2,000 Sikh pilgrims from India celebrate the annual Baisakhi festival at Nankana Sahib. Gurdwara Darbar Sahib is believed to be where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived and died at the start of the 16th Century. Gurdwara Darbar Sahib and Gurdwara Dera Baba Nanak in India have been connected via a 4.1 kilometre Kartarpur corridor since 2019 which features a visa-free border-crossing. At an average, around 7,500 Sikhs from India and around 2,000 from other parts of the world visit Pakistan annually.

Another important site is Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore. It commemorates the martyrdom of Sikhism’s fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev, in 1606. He was the first of the Sikh faith’s two gurus to be martyred. As a result, the Sikhs regard this location as sacred. Gurdwara Panja Sahib is in Hasan Abdal, is so named because a legendary ‘imprint’ of a hand on a rock lying there is attributed to Guru Nanak.

With so many religious sites, predominantly from Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, in Pakistan we just can’t ignore this opportunity. If the requisite focus is afforded to this aspect of tourism and prudent steps are taken, this industry can accrue huge benefits to the country. 

Hindus comprise 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population. This makes them the biggest minority group in the country. Most of them live in Sindh. Major Hindu temples in Pakistan include Shri Hinglaj Mata temple at Hingol Park which hosts the largest Hindu pilgrimage in Pakistan, with more than 250,000 pilgrims every year.

Shri Ramdev Pir temple in Tando Allah Yar hosts the second largest Hindu pilgrimage in the country. The Shiv Mandir at Umarkot is famous for its annual Shivrathri festival, which is one of the biggest religious festivals in Pakistan. Hindus bring cremated ashes of their departed beloveds to immerse in the holy water in the temple. Katas Raj Temple complex in Chakwal is one of the most venerated places of Hindus in Pakistan.

The Shri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir is a medieval Hindu temple located in Karachi. It is known to be the world’s only temple with a natural statue of Lord Hanuman. The Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act 1994 has declared it as a national treasure.

Needless to mention, there are many beautiful mosques in Pakistan. Badshahi Masjid in Lahore is a popular tourist destination as well as a religious landmark. The mosque was once a symbol of power for the Mughal Empire after it was built in 1673. Faisal Mosque in Islamabad is the fourth biggest mosque in the world and the largest in South Asia. Designed by a Turkish architect, its construction was completed in year 1986.

Shah Jehan Mosque in Thatta is Pakistan’s third most famous mosque. During the time of Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, the mosque was built as a gift of great hospitality to the Sindhis. The spectacular Tooba Mosque is in Karachi. It is known to be the world’s largest single dome mosque; made entirely of white marble. Its dome has a diameter of 72 metres (236 feet) and is supported by an enclosed wall with no central pillar.

Peshawar’s Mahabat Khan Mosque was constructed in year 1603. The minarets and other architecture of the mosque provide a stunning view.

Pakistan is also known for a sufi culture. Many renowned sufi adepts resided in the area and continue to be revered. The Sehwan Sharif shrine, dedicated to the 12th Century sufi mentor, Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, popularly known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, attracts not only Muslims but also Hindu devotees.

The shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh is a similar location in Lahore. The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, one of the most famous sufi shrines, is in Karachi. It was built about 10 centuries ago. Multan, is known for its many preserved shrines dedicated to sufis including Hazrat Baha-ud-Din Zakaria.

The shrine made from red bricks was completed in 1267. The shrine of Farid-ud Din Shakar Ganj, popularly known as Baba Farid, is located in Pakpattan Sharif.

Millions of people embark annually on spiritual expeditions to seek solace at the shrines. Religious tourism is one of the fastest growing facets of tourism nowadays. With so many religious sites we just can’t ignore this opportunity. If the requisite focus is afforded to this aspect of tourism and prudent steps are taken, this industry can accrue huge benefits to the country in the form of financial dividends, job openings, infrastructure development and connectivity. There is a dire need for branding and exhibiting the religious sites.

The writer is communication strategist at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. She can be reached at

The economy of religious tourism