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Luxury Buddhist tourism takes off

2013-01-17 11:21 Global Times     Web Editor: Liu Xian comment

Rich Buddhists who rent pricey helicopters to fly from Beijing to pray at temples on Wutai Mountain might not find the karma they are seeking, after this conspicuous display of wealth has been criticized for being too extravagant for a place considered holy to the faith.

A private helicopter company announced Wednesday that it was offering flights from the capital for a one-day tour to the mountain, in Shanxi Province, a trip that takes around 90 minutes each way.

Wutai Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 95 temples and monasteries, and is one of the four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism.

He Chi, the deputy manager of the Beijing Capital Helicopter Company, told the Global Times they had just announced the new route Wednesday, and see a great potential market for the service.

"Most of the potential passengers would be the bosses of private companies," said He.

Worshippers would be able to get there and pay homage to Buddha and return to Beijing before sunset, he said.

The company has nine helicopters which can seat up to five passengers. A journey costs from 30,000 to 40,000 yuan ($4,824-6,432) per passenger per hour, depending on the journey and the type of helicopter.

"There are nine take-off and landing sites in Beijing and passengers can choose the one nearest their home to be picked up at," He said. Helipad sites include those at the Olympic Park or Honglingjin Park in Chaoyang district, and passengers must book at least one day in advance.

But this is not the only company to provide private helicopter flights for the capital's super rich.

Cao Wei, the manager of Beijing Reignwood Star General Aviation, a Beijing-based private airline, said that they launched their service to Wutai about six months ago.

"We have many routes nationwide and the one from Beijing to Wutai Mountain is one of our most popular," he said.

"Those who are interested in this route are mostly tourists who want to burn incense or worship Buddha there," he said, "spending tens of thousands of yuan on something like this is no longer extravagant to many."

Niu Fengrui, a sociologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that a private helicopter is an extravagant form of transportation that could be seen as being at odds with the tenets of the Buddhist faith.

That some Buddhist devotees want to pay for such a lavish trip might be connected with the extravagance and commercialized atmosphere of the Buddhist tourism industry, he said.

"Some Buddhist monks who have luxury vehicles and expensive mobiles have not set a good example to those believers," Niu said.

"After all, a sumptuous lifestyle does not match the Buddhist spirit nor does it fit the traditional beliefs it [the faith]should have," he noted.

In 2006, Shi Yongxin, head of Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, received a Volkswagen SUV as a gift from a local government official as a reward for his contribution in boosting the local tourism industry, the Beijing Evening News reported in August, 2006. He later put the car up for auction under public pressure, and the cash went to the temple.

Restaurant owner and Buddhist Zheng Xiaowen agrees that private helicopter tours might be a step too far, and thinks those who might be considering such a trip would be better off giving the cash to charity.

"I can't understand why they should spend tens of thousands of yuan on this service, since it's not right to waste their money on transport," she said.

"It's better to donate their money instead," said Zheng, adding that a true devotee would not choose to pay homage at a temple via luxury transport.

Zheng said that some Buddhists will walk, kowtowing all the way to the temples at Wutai Mountain to show their reverence to Buddha.

But monk Jie Guang, from the Buddhist Academy of China, told the Global Times that he thinks these helicopter tourists are not doing anything wrong, as long as they still have a loyal heart to Buddha.

"They are wise and know that only Wutai Mountain could offer the mental comfort they need," he said.

The money spent might be an extravagance to some, but not for those who are rich.

"I see nothing inappropriate in people spending this much money going from Beijing to Wutai Mountain by helicopter," said Jie.

"People should not pay too much attention on how much money is being spent, but rather whether it is done with good intentions or not," he noted.

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