The bustling Fatehebad road and Taj ganj area that was till February wearing festive colours and reverberating with sounds of tourists flocking to the 17th century Mughal mausoleum, now looks like a ghost city.
Covid hit Agra's tourism industry hard. With months of lockdown and suspension of transport facilities, hoteliers and travel agents here are finding it difficult to go back to the old normal. Industry stake holders say not just opening up of flights and issuing of visas but a lot of impetus is required to bring back the lost charm.
"After the Taj Mahal and other monuments were shut down mid-March to stall the spread of the Coronavirus infection, lakhs of employees and tour agents are jobless. Unfortunately, the uncertainty continues with little hope for the early revival of the industry," says Surendra Sharma, senior industry leader, founder president of Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association.
The bigger hotels are now starting to reopen expecting the momentum to return in November when air connectivity will be restored and restrictions on mobility reduced.
"This has been a healing time for both, the monuments and the hotels which have been able to carry out major repairs and streamlining of facilities. But people who got their livelihood from these sectors have found making ends meet difficult," Sharma said.
Stakeholders in the tourism sector have appealed to the Prime Minister and the Union Finance Minister to consider a package and offer tax relief to bolster the sagging spirits of the industry.
"Tourism industry is the worst affected due to COVID pandemic and will surely be the last to recover," Sunil Gupta, director of the Travel Bureau and chairman IATO North told IANS. He hoped Narendra Modi would respond to the sector's appeal to save it from a collapse.
The industry which contributes approximately 10 per cent of the GDP, employing over 5 crore people, "is in shambles" rued Gupta as the loss of tourism business amounted to approximately Rs 15 lakh crores with 75 per cent job loss.
"In Agra, over 4 lakh people are dependent on tourism and number much greater indirectly," said Gupta. Tourism hubs of the city are totally deserted as most cafes, restaurants, small hotels, rooftop bars, tourist shops remain closed despite the unlock due as tourists are absent.
The Taj Mahal was closed on March 17, and international flights and Visas were stopped -- forcing a total shutdown of tourism activities in Agra.
"Now after seven months we all face the challenges of eking out a livelihood "while we learn to live with Covid," says Gupta. "Since tourism is heavily dependent on foreign tourists it is urgent to start international flights and issue Visas online. So far we do not see any government help to this vital sector despite repeated requests from travel operators and agents including IATO ( Indian Association of Tour Operators)," he added.
IATO has been continuously pleading with the Ministry of Tourism, Finance, Commerce, Niti Ayog, RBI, MSME, SEPC, etc but no encouraging response has so far come from these institutions.
"The IATO has now started a "Postcard Campaign" to draw the attention of Modi, who has twice spoken about the importance of T for Tourism from the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort.
"One lakh postcards are being sent by all affected including drivers, guides, taxi drivers, and their families," said IATO chairman.
"Tourism, the worst-hit sector due to the pandemic, is not reviving after the unlock although the hotels, restaurants, and monuments have been opened with proper SOP's in place to ensure the safety of tourists," said Rajiv Tiwari, a senior tourism industry leader in Agra, as well.
"Trains and domestic flights connecting tourist destinations are not fully operational. Due to this and due to fear of Covid-19, the domestic tourists are hesitating to travel. Only a few from nearby places mostly on weekends are travelling," Tiwari said.
"International flights are not operating to/from India nor the Indian government is issuing tourist Visas hence we do not expect foreign tourists in near future in India since they plan their tours months in advance. It seems that tourism whose contribution to GDP of the country is nearly 10 per cent and is a job-oriented industry is not a priority with the government," he added.
Tiwari said all this is "badly affecting the livelihood of the people associated with tourism directly or indirectly. Guides, drivers, handicraft artisans are left hand to mouth.
"Hotels, travel agents, tour operators, emporia are at the verge of shutting down.
"The government should immediately help this industry by providing interest-free loans for a year, rebates in GST, waiving off fixed charges on electricity bills etc.
"The operation of international flights should start immediately and visas be issued to travellers. More importantly, all stakeholders have to create confidence in tourists that travelling in India is safe for tourists."
These are just some of the common points raised by a cross section of the industry.
The secretary of the Agra Development Foundation, KC Jain said: "Post-Lockdown, we need to take proactive initiatives to promote tourism in Agra. To begin with, daily full or half a day tours of the city should be started for tourists to enable them to visit lesser-known monuments like Mehtab Bagh, Etmadaulla (Baby Taj), Chini Ka Roza, Rambagh, Lal Taj Mahal, Dayalbagh Samadhi, Sikandara and Mariyam Tomb, in safe, sanitized air-conditioned coaches.
"Tours by private operators to the Taj Nature Walk, Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary (Keetham) with boating, Bear Rescue Centre, Elephant Rescue Centre, Chambal Safari, Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur). Such tours should be accompanied by nature guides to explain about the biodiversity, flora and fauna, butterflies, birds, native trees and shrubs, animals.
"Live performances by local artistes at the heritage sites could be a big draw. Folk Dances, Raas Leela, Krishan Leela, Holi, Mayur Dance, Musical Concerts, Classical Dances etc. at such places in the tourism zone like Shahjahan Garden, Taj Nagari Phase-2 Zonal Park, Taj View Point (near Mehtab Bagh), Taj Nature Walk etc. -- it would provide a wonderful opportunity to the visitors to witness the cultural heritage.
"Initially, some financial support should be extended to the local artist until the groups become self-dependent. Such performances would increase the night stay of the tourists.
"Handicrafts Bazaar/Mela can be organized from November to February (four months) at convenient places to attract the visitors to buy handicrafts and to see the Indian talent," Jain said it was a god-send opportunity to redesign the structure of the annual cultural extravaganza the Taj Mahotsav."
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