PESHAWAR -- As the long nightmare of terrorism fades in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), foreign religious tourists are returning to the province.
Security has improved nationwide, including in KP, as a result of the army's counter-terrorism Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began in North Waziristan in June 2014 and continues to this day.
With terrorists on the run and unable to regroup, tourists are giving archaeologically rich KP a second look, according to provincial officials.
KP is home to some of the world's rarest Buddhist relics, part of a civilisation known as Gandhara in Pakistan.
Those returning tourists include 39 Buddhist monks and officials from Sri Lanka.
On May 31, that delegation visited the ruins of Takht-i-Bhai near Mardan to offer rituals in observance of their Vesak holiday.
Earlier in May, a group of 13 Bhutanese Buddhist pilgrims visited Swat District, KP, and performed rituals at various archaeological sites, including Gulkada, the Saidu Sharif stupa and a statue of Buddha.
A long wait for foreign tourists
It took a long time for foreigners to regain a sense of confidence about visiting KP, which was a battleground between troops and militants for years.
"International tourists avoided KP in the past decade because of terrorism and militancy," Abdul Samad Khan, director of the KP Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, told Central Asia Online.
Now foreign pilgrims and other tourists are returning to KP's historic Buddhist and Hindu sites, Samad said May 31 in Peshawar, after the Sri Lankan monks toured Takht-i-Bhai and the Hund Museum in Swabi District.
"The Buddhist monks' visit ... reflects the confidence of foreign tourists," he said.
Buddhists revere KP heritage
The lack of incidents during the Sri Lankan monks' visit is a very good sign, Samad said.
KP contains a rich archaeological heritage for Buddhists to revere. The Gandhara civilisation flourished in the region from the sixth century BCE to the fifth century CE, Samad pointed out.
Not only the monks were excited to tour Takht-i-Bhai.
For Nilmini Fernando, an official with the Sri Lankan prime minister's office, it was a dream come true.
"I learned about this site in books," she said after the tour of the site.
"It was the assignment of Tourism Corporation KP [TCKP] and the KP Archaeology Directorate to develop the province as a tourism hub," Zahoor Ahmad Durrani, a consultant with TCKP, told Central Asia Online.
"The consistent efforts of Pakistan's security forces are making it possible," he added.
Earlier work to develop tourism
In May, the KP Archaeology Directorate organised an international conference in Islamabad on how to attract Buddhist pilgrims to sites in KP, he added.
Plans included developing the Gandhara Trail to attract pilgrims from various countries in Asia to KP, he said.
The province is committed to showcasing its ancient non-Islamic heritage, he noted.
"We wanted to show ... that we kept these centuries-old sites intact," he said.
"The Buddhist art of Gandhara influenced ... the entire Buddhist world," Fidaullah Sehrai, former director of the Peshawar Museum and former chairman of the University of Peshawar archaeology department, who died last week, told Central Asia Online.
The Peshawar Museum's collection of Gandhara stone sculptures that represent the Buddha's entire life is the largest such collection in the world, he said, adding that it could be a great attraction for foreign tourists.
All visitors welcome
The KP Archaeology Directorate, recognising the value of KP's heritage, is sending delegations to countries like South Korea, Italy and Sri Lanka to encourage Buddhist pilgrims to come.
"A number of Buddhist pilgrims are contacting us to visit revered sites in KP," KP Archaeology Directorate official Nawaz Ud Din, his agency's focal person for foreign religious tourism, told Central Asia Online.
Interest has grown because tourists feel greater confidence in Pakistani and KP security, he said.
"Every guest returns with good memories of the warm welcome and traditional hospitality ... of our people," he said.
"Police provide full security to guests as they come in from Islamabad and during their hotel stays and visits to sites," he added.
TCKP "sets up stalls in international exhibitions to promote religious tourism in KP", Zahra Alam, TCKP spokesperson, told Central Asia Online.
TCKP personnel additionally distribute brochures and screen documentaries at such exhibitions and conferences, she added.
Like Nawaz Ud Din, she noted the growth in foreign interest in visiting KP that has accompanied the downturn in terrorism since 2014.