BANGKOK, Thailand -- American evangelist Billy Graham's controversial son Franklin, who said Buddhists cannot "get to heaven" and Islam "is very evil and wicked," began a three-night Christian festival on Friday (November 22) in Buddhist-majority Thailand's second biggest city, Chiang Mai.

Vietnam, meanwhile, is hosting the first United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development, including an Australian tourism investor and others discussing how Aboriginals, traditional religions and New Age spiritualism enhance destinations.

Many people in the international travel industry are looking for ways to protect crumbling monuments and indigenous spiritual arts, while educating tourists and governments about the value of belief systems dating back before recorded history.

In Southeast Asia, foreign evangelicals and modern visionaries also frequently arrive, attracted by the region's ancient religious sites or trying to push atheist Buddhists into imagining a god to worship.

"The Abundant Life Festival is an evangelistic partnership between the churches of Chiang Mai and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) that begins and ends in the local church," the U.S.-based festival's organizers said, introducing their gathering in Thailand.

"Thousands will experience a genuine revival as they become involved in evangelism and discipleship training, prayer fellowship, and other facets of the Festival," BGEA said.

"The Festival provides incredible opportunities for Christians to be trained in how to share their faith with their friends."

The festival runs from November 22-24 in a stadium in the northern city, and also features music and entertainment by Thai pop groups and others.

Alan Dawson, an American editor and columnist at the English-language Bangkok Post, warned readers that Franklin Graham "is a hard-line version of his father, seeking converts in large part by reviling other religions.

"He has gained notoriety mostly by derogating Islam, but his comments on Hindus and -- by extension -- Buddhists are hardly models of the compassion of Christ, let alone tolerance," Dawson wrote while reporting Graham's schedule in the newspaper's weekly events box.

In 2010, Franklin Graham told Newsweek, "I don't believe that you can get to heaven through being a Buddhist or Hindu.

"I think Muhammad only leads to the grave. Now, that's what I believe, and I don't apologize for my faith. And if it's divisive, I'm sorry."

Graham also said in 2010 during an ABC TV talk show, "I believe the mosques in America, the majority of the mosques in this country, have been hijacked by the radicals and Islamists who want to destroy this country."

Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion," he said in 2001 according to Associated Press.

Thailand's population is 95 percent Buddhist and five percent Muslim, while Christians comprise less than one percent.

Today, Franklin Graham is president and CEO of BGEA and also Samaritan's Purse, an "international relief organization" headquartered in the U.S. state of North Carolina.

Three weeks ago, during the first three days of November, Franklin Graham's son, Will, held a similar "evangelistic celebration" in Udon Thani, also in northern Thailand.

The Udon Thani event attracted 12,310 people, including 808 "registering a commitment to Jesus Christ," BGEA said.

"In 2012, Will was named vice president of the BGEA, overseeing Children and Youth Evangelism Training. He also serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, N.C.," the association said.

By contrast, Vietnam's two-day conference began on Thursday (November 21) in Ninh Binh City, about 56 miles from the capital Hanoi, organized by their Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the UNWTO.

Delegates came from Australia, Canada, Spain, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere.

They hoped to educate "policy makers, the tourism industry, community representatives, NGOs (non-governmental organizations)" and also "civil society, spiritual leaders and academic institutions," the UNWTO said.

"With a landmark one billion tourists crossing international borders in 2012 alone, never before have so many traveled so widely, nor come into contact with such diverse expressions of spirituality, faith and culture," it said.

Protecting the world's "spiritual, religious and cultural values and assets in the context of tourism," and the "empowerment of local communities" including "vulnerable groups" was also discussed.

"Spiritual tourism" includes "religious tourism," "secular and New Age spiritualism" and other beliefs, it said.

Examples of successful "spiritual tourism" include India's endangered Patachitra artists whose traditional Hindu painting and singing techniques were recently rescued from oblivion, the organizers said.

Indonesia's Balinese artisans and Australia's Aborigines have also been able to revive their spiritual values through tourism-related events, said the UNWTO which includes 156 nations.

"At Australia's Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Anangu Aboriginal community invites tourists to learn about their customs and spiritual values through walking tracks and a specially designed tourist center," the UNWTO said.

"Taking travelers into the world of traditional Tjukurpa law, which guides the Anangu's protection and management of the land, and seeking to communicate its meaning, has helped to create greater visitor sensitivity to local traditions and beliefs.

"So too has this helped tourists understand why their responsible behavior is so critical to the survival of the National Park and the values of the Anangu people," the UNWTO said.

At the conference, Steve Noakes, an Australian, shared his 35 years of experience in tourism across the Asia-Pacific region.

Noakes reportedly has "eco-lodge and eco-safari investments in Indonesia and Australia, cultural tourism operations in the Pacific islands and international sustainable tourism projects funded by a range of donor agencies, national governments and industry bodies," according to a conference document.

"He has been an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland and Griffith University in Australia, and a visiting professor at the University of Lapland in Finland. He has served as a member of the UNWTO World Committee on Tourism Ethics, the Boards of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Sustainable Travel International, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), and a number of NGOs," it said.

"Over two and a half thousand years ago, the Lord Buddha probably contributed to the early days of spiritual tourism destinations, urging his followers to visit locations important to his life," Noakes told the conference.

"Spiritual tourism can add value for environments, communities, entrepreneurs and tourists within the ethical objectives outlined by the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism," Noakes said.

Canada's delegate, Dr. Daniel H. Olsen, an associate professor in Brandon University's geography department, focused on "how scholars have attempted to define religious tourism and spiritual tourism, and differentiate spiritual tourism from New Age tourism."

Jose Paz Gestoso, a tourism director from Spain, traced religious tourism in Europe since medieval times, including Christian pilgrimages to saints' tombs and other holy sites.

Dr. Duong Bich Hanh, a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) delegate from Vietnam, said she was concerned how "some cultural assets are over-exploited, and there are weak mechanisms in place for protecting and conserving them" in Vietnam.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)