Authorities reopened the Taj Mahal after six months yesterday, with the first visitors trickling into the famous monument as authorities reported 86,961 new coronavirus infections across India, with no signs of a peak yet.
The white marble tomb in Agra was opened to the public at sunrise, and a Chinese national and a visitor from Delhi were among the first to enter.
Daily visitor numbers have been capped at 5,000, versus an average of 20,000 before the pandemic.
Tickets are only being sold online, with fewer than 300 bought on the first day.
Visitors will have their temperatures taken and must adhere to advice to keep a safe distance from each other.
Aditya Diksha, one of the early visitors at the Taj, said he and his friends drove 12 hours from central India and stopped in Agra on their way to the mountains in the north.
“It is the first time in six months we have been out, so it feels good,” he said.
Workers at the Taj were sanitising the handrails while paramilitary police shouted at tourists not to touch any of the surfaces.
“We are following all Covid-19 protocols,” said Vasant Swarnkar, superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, which oversees the Taj among other monuments.
India’s coronavirus tally of 5.49mn infections is second only to the United States with 6.79mn, a figure it could overtake in the next few weeks at its current rate of increase.
The death toll of 87,882 was up 1,130 from the previous day, Health Ministry figures showed.
But as a proportion of its population, India’s toll is still small compared to countries such as the United States, Brazil and Britain.
Faced with the deepest economic contraction in decades, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing to free up virus curbs so that jobs and businesses can resume.
“We can survive for another four to six months: after that we will have to take some serious calls,” said Abid Naqvi, who saw bookings at his boutique hotel in Agra drop to zero overnight after India’s abrupt lockdown in March.
Until then, the 13-room Ekaa Villa, which opened last year at a cost of almost $1mn, had been operating at close to capacity.
“The moment I heard the Taj is reopening I decided to visit. I had been planning it for so many years,” said engineer Debargha Sengupta, 25, who took a train from Allahabad 500km away.
“It’s amazing, it’s incredible. I had read about the Taj in books and seen the pictures but to see it in real is so amazing,” he said.
“I am not worried about the coronavirus. It’s been six months and I am totally fed up now. We cannot sit at home forever.”
The return of visitors is a huge relief to the many people of Agra who depend on Taj Mahal tourists for their livelihoods.
“It was so frustrating to sit idle at home for six months,” said an elated Zahid Baig, a rickshaw driver.
“Agra looked like a ghost city without the Taj tourists,” he said.
Tourism contributed about $240bn, or 9.2% of India’s gross domestic product in 2018, employing more than 42mn people, World Travel and Tourism Council data show.
However, foreign tourists were unlikely to return until at least April, said Manu P V, secretary of the Association of Tourism Trade Organisations India, a month that traditionally signals the end of the tourist season.
And a confusing system of regional lockdowns and quarantine rules is deterring domestic tourists.
“People don’t want to go on holiday,” Manu said. “They are very worried. There is the fear factor.”
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