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Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Taj Mahal desperate for tourists
Taj Mahal
Fear of war and violence has driven tourists away

The Taj Mahal, India's world-famous monument to love, has for years been the country's biggest tourist attraction.


Those who were to come here, their itineraries have changed to Thailand and Indonesia

Utkarsh Faujdar, Agra hotelier
But in the northern city of Agra, home to the 17th century palace, tourists are now almost nowhere to be seen.

Those who depend heavily on overseas visitors - luxury hotels, handicraft shops and tour guides - have been hardest hit.

Although tourism has not grown much since the mid-1990s, last year was particularly bad.

"First there were the 11 September attacks, then this Bin Laden war in Afghanistan and after that, fighting between India and Pakistan," said Arun Shivhare, the owner of a small photo shop near the Taj.

"So, very few foreigners are willing to come here," he said.

Mass cancellations

Last year's terror attacks in the United States triggered a worldwide slump in travel and tourism. But as things improved elsewhere, tensions between India and Pakistan continued to keep overseas tourists away.

Young tourists at an Indian market
Only a handful of tourists are visiting India

Just two months ago, several Western governments advised their diplomats and other nationals to leave, fearing an all out war between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Last week, the United States and Britain withdrew their warnings against travel to India, with the exception of areas bordering Pakistan.

But because it is India's top tourist destination, Agra has continued to bear the brunt of the slowdown.

Ticket sales are down at the Taj Mahal. Daily admissions of foreign tourists are usually low in July, averaging about 400-500 on week days.

This year, however, that figure has fallen to 150 - less than a third of the normal level - according to a senior security official.

Tourist trickle

Outside the main Taj entrance, some two dozen photographers survey the trickle of tourists from the shade of an enormous tree.

Inexpensive hostels for backpackers
Many hotels are running well below capacity

Normally they would be working the crowds inside, immortalizing visitors in front of the 17th century marble monument. But most of their best customers have not shown up this year.

"This is the season for Malaysians and Japanese but they have cancelled in large numbers," said Prabhakar Singh Pal, his camera dangling uselessly from a shoulder strap.

There is a feeling here that all of the world's troubles are being visited on Agra.

Local shopkeepers say this year's religious violence in the faraway western state of Gujarat has kept some of the biggest Indian spenders away.

Luxury hotels have seen occupancy fall by more than half.

Changed itineraries

For Agra, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other American targets could not have come at a worse time - they occurred less than a month before the start of the main tourist season.

As a result, top hotels have had to cut their staff and their prices.

Concerns about safety, which increased during a seven-month military standoff with Pakistan, have taken a heavy toll.

"People from abroad always plan five to six months in advance," said Utkarsh Faujdar, acting general manager of The Trident, a leading local hotel.

"So those who were to come here, their itineraries have changed to Thailand, Indonesia, etc," he added.

Mr Faujdar said the withdrawal of travel warnings by Western governments is a positive sign, "but it will take one to one-and-a-half months to show some results."

At the nearby Taj-View Hotel, duty manager Ruchie Sharma too is hopeful.

"Since the easing of sanctions, people who had cancelled or postponed trips, they have started sending e-mails and other enquiries," she said.

See also:

23 May 02 | South Asia
24 Apr 02 | South Asia
20 Mar 02 | South Asia
30 Jan 02 | South Asia
03 Jan 02 | South Asia
12 Oct 01 | Business
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
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