Last month, the government reopened the Taj Mahal for tourists but weekend lockdowns and the city metro project is impacting tourism.
The Taj Mahal is on everyone’s bucket list world-over. The 16th-century white marble mausoleum built by emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal is considered a symbol of love and is visited by the rich and poor alike.
In April, it was shut down when the second wave of the pandemic hit the country. It was only last month that it was reopened for tourists. However, only 650 tourists are allowed per day and tickets have to be booked online in advance. The monument is generally visited by around 20,000 people a day.
Agra that banks primarily on tourism is suffering. “Post the lockdown, hotel occupancy is just around 10 per cent,” says Ramesh Wadhwa, the president of the Hotels and Restaurant Owners Association, Agra. Between January to April, before the lockdown was announced, occupancy was around 30-40 per cent, thanks to the domestic tourists.
July is generally an active month for hotels in Agra as it is the beginning of the summer break in Europe and a large number of European tourists visit the city. Till before the pandemic hit, the occupancy levels used to be 65-70 per cent in July. “We often refer to July as the French season,” says Wadhwa.
He is hopeful that the inbound tourists will begin visiting again from next year, but right now even domestic tourists are not heading to Agra.
The city currently has a weekend lockdown and the Taj Mahal is shut on Fridays. So those wanting to visit it, need to do it between Monday and Thursday. This basically impacts tourists coming from neighbouring cities of Delhi, Lucknow, etc. for whom Agra is a weekend getaway.
Then there is the question of the Agra metro project which was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December last year. While it has environmentalists and conservationists up in arms because it passes within 100 metres of almost 12 monuments and will result in destroying over four hectares of protected forest land, Wadhwa says it is also impacting tourism.
Fatehabad Road, which is the lifeline of Agra, is completely dug up. Most hotels are on either side of the road. “If you are on one side of the road and have to cross over to the other side, you have to drive a fair distance to take a U-turn and then there is traffic blockage. It creates a lot of trouble for guests staying in the hotels.”
Will the metro help tourists once it is operational? Wadhwa doesn’t think so. “You have to go all the way to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal to take the metro to reach Agra Fort. It’s just 1.5km, if you walk it, you will reach it faster,” says Wadhwa.
The nearly 30-km network in Agra has two corridors. The first corridor has 13 stations, beginning at Sikandra and terminating at Taj Mahal’s East Gate on Fatehabad Road. The second corridor has 14 stations beginning at Agra Cantt Railway Station and terminating at Kalindi Vihar on the Delhi-Kolkata National Highway.
Since Agra is a congested city, the only viable route for the metro rail passes close to 12 monuments—nine along the first corridor and the rest along the second corridor. The Delhi Gate monument is common between the two. Four monuments—Pathar Ka Ghoda, Guru Ka Taal Gurudwara, Roman Catholic Cemetery, and Lal Masjid—fall within 100 metres of the proposed route. Seven monuments—Akbar’s tomb, Salamat Khan’s tomb, Sadiq Khan’s tomb, Delhi Gate, Jama Masjid, Agra Fort, and Ram Bagh—are within 200 metres of the proposed construction activity.
According to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 2010, construction is prohibited within 100 metres of monuments without the Archaeological Survey of India’s permission, and regulated within 200 meters.
Traffic congestion and pollution were always dampeners for tourists in Agra. However, now with half the city dug up and the Taj Mahal open only four days a week, the city has become even less attractive to domestic tourists looking for a break, adding to the distress of the hospitality sector.