Photographer Firoz Khan is one of the batteries of lensmen hanging around in the sunlit outer courtyard that leads into the Taj Mahal. Like his compatriots, he keeps an eye on the prospective tourist willing to spend a few bucks for two minutes of fame – a lifelong photograph that certifies a visit to India’s eternal monument of love.
"It is hard. Not too many tourists in the Covid season. We can only pray," he says. That is a mild understatement. Khan is talking about a city whose economy is intrinsically linked to tourism. Before the pandemic struck, the Taj attracted anywhere between 25,000 and 30,000 tourists a day on a weekday – on an extended weekend, it could touch the 50,000-mark. Since it reopened on September 21 this year after the mandatory six-month Covid layoff, it has not touched the 5,000-a-day mark, the figure set in stone by the Ministry of Culture for visitors allowed in this world-famous mausoleum, for long regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and UNESCO world heritage site to boot. Before this pandemic-induced shutdown, the Taj Mahal was closed for two days during the Second World War, the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War and the floods that ravaged the city in 1978.
Official figures – mostly veering towards being conservative – say Agra has about 650 registered hotels, 3,500 official guides and 800 photographers listed with the district administration. What they don’t say is that the number of unregistered guides and photographers is equally huge. Then there are pocket-sized emporiums and rickshaw pullers, do-gooders and general laymen who are keen to explain the topography of the city to anyone who is willing to listen. Like photographer Firoz Khan, however, they know little about what is going to happen next if the current trend continues.
What is the bottleneck?
Agra Tourist Welfare Chamber Secretary Vishal Sharma was quoted in the media as saying that the tourist cap of 5,000 a day at the Taj becomes a bottleneck on the growth of tourism in the city and needs to be revised as soon as possible.
That, however, is easier said than done. The fear of Covid is all-pervasive and the city is, for the first time in living memory, singularly devoid of foreigners. With flights from western countries still irregular, not to mention the fact that the US and Europe themselves are reeling under the onslaught of Covid, Agra’s economy is without crucial foreign exchange, its flourishing handicraft industry that westerners patronise, bereft of buyers.
Online tickets, compulsory masks, temperature checks at entry, ban on taking food items along -- elaborate measures are in place to ensure social distancing and safe sanitation. But that is cold comfort for the tourists travelling from around the globe, who run the risk of infection. It has not helped that a confusing system of regional lockdowns and quarantine rules has deterred domestic tourists from visiting the Taj.
Some figures tell a story. In 2018, the Taj was the most visited Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) monument by international visitors, accounting for about 795,00 foreign tourists. On March 16 this year, a day before the Taj was shut down in a pall of fear and gloom, there were a total of 114 foreign travellers!
The principal stakeholders in Agra’s tourist ecosystem, are, to put it mildly, broke. Taj miniatures that cost Rs 200 are being hawked for Rs 10. A visitor on the road can be accosted by young men `offering’ them sights and sounds that they did not know existed. It is indeed difficult to walk five steps before being stopped by a potential 'guide'. Car parks around the city are empty and shops are without visitors. In other words, the sense of desperation is all-pervading and palpable.
While the Taj is undoubtedly Agra’s crème da la crème, it is by no means the only attraction in this most Moghul of all Moghul cities in the sub-continent – indeed in the world. There are other heavyweights tourist attractions in the fray: the magnificent Agra Fort, the main residence of the Moghul emperors until 1638 before it went into the hands of the Marathas; Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital city founded in 1571; the I'timād-ud-Daulah Mughal mausoleum, Mehtab Bagh, which lies to the north of the Taj and Akbar’s tomb, are all testimonies to an era long gone by. Today, they are also an affirmation that in the absence of tourists and without money coming in for their upkeep, things are beginning to look bleak.