In mid-February this year, I was among hordes of other tourists who had flocked to Agra to witness the Taj Mahotsav, an annual fest for those uninitiated to the city’s cultural majesty. There was hardly an inkling in my mind that it would be my last trip anywhere for a long, tormenting period. A few signs of the alarm that dominates our public life now had begun to seep in. At the airport, a handful of faces were masked, as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic, which back then seemed to be far removed from Indian shores. After a smooth flight during which I drooled on the shoulder of an unknown, but gracious old lady, I hit the road in a spacious bus along with a couple of other writers, spending the next three hours swooning over the city that had once served as the golden capital of the Mughal Empire.
As we navigated our way around the ‘Old Town’ quarters, consuming platefuls of freshly made petha and jalebi, visited unsung colonial neighbourhoods and finally walked up in awe to the white-marble façade of the Taj Mahal, we didn’t spare a thought to the thousands crowding behind our shoulders or tripping over our feet. ‘Social distancing’ hadn’t yet made its way into our daily lives.
On March 16, as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic grew near, the Indian government announced the closure of the Taj Mahal and other landmark monuments in Agra, much to the disbelief of tourists and locals alike. Overnight, thousands lost their means of income, while the barely fortunate were furloughed.
“Nearly five lakh people in Agra are directly and indirectly tied with tourism,” says Rajiv Saxena, Vice President of the Tourism Guild of Agra. “Their livelihood has been completely challenged as a result of the pandemic. Job losses are predicted and a lot of travel organisations, emporiums and hoteliers are looking to send people on furloughs.”
On an average, Agra receives about eight to 10 million tourists a year, both domestic and international, the latter travelling challenging distances to fulfill their bucket-list goal of visiting the exquisite mausoleum of love. However, according to Saxena, there was already a 10 per cent dip in tourist footfall in the 2019-2020 season. This year, with the government announcing the nationwide lockdown from March 25, the season was forced to be cut back by half.
“With this went all our hopes of making up the drop in tourist footfall. Now, if we manage to get even something like six to seven million tourists this year once tourism resumes, we should consider ourselves lucky,” Saxena says.
As normalcy—whatever that comes to be in the next few months—resumes, local travel business are hoping for some improvement. To Saxena, this calls for a ‘new normal.’ Working in collaboration with the Archeological Society of India (ASI), which looks after the maintenance of most of the world-renowned monuments in the city, the Guild has begun to formulate new guidelines for tourist visits.
“Our suggestions include social distancing tours and possible time slots for group visits. We’ve also asked the ASI to reopen strategically—first the World Directed Monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, then the National Monuments such as the Haveli of Agha Khan and Akbar’s Tomb and finally the local tourist attractions such as the Roman Catholic Cemetery and other such spots on our colonial walks,” Saxena clarifies.
Along with this, the ASI will also incorporate thermal screenings at the most iconic tourist spots, which will be sanitised.
The new social distancing guidelines apply to hotels across the city as well. While most hoteliers are hoping to open shop by August 1, they’re taking the time to strategise and become more ‘COVID-19 compliant’ for future bookings.
The Courtyard by Marriott, which witnessed a 30 to 40 per cent drop in bookings in mid-March, had enjoyed a 100 per cent occupancy with all its 189 rooms filled until the end of February. While the hotel waits to welcome visitors again, it is laying out new safety protocol measures. “The new measures will include things like a mandatory six-foot-distance between tables in restaurants, and a limit to the number of guests occupying each table. We’re also looking to change the layout of the banquet halls,” says Shilajit Banerjee, Duty Manager of Courtyard by Marriott.
The sentiment is echoed by Hotel Clarks Shiraz, a major tourist hub with its enviable views of the Taj Mahal. Even before the nationwide lockdown was announced, hotel bookings had begun to drop, with a 95 per cent cancellation in the days before the city shutdown. The only hope now, says the hotel’s Account Manager Sanjeev Kumar, is for domestic travellers to start trickling in once the lockdown is relaxed and it’s safe to travel again.
The hope of domestic travellers reviving the trade isn’t limited to hoteliers alone. Saxena too is of the belief that with international travel to India now possibly experiencing a backlog of a year or more, tourism in Agra will, in the near future, depend on Indian tourists alone. Local tour operators too will have to remodel their packages with domestic travellers in mind, he says.
However, this focus on domestic travellers is worrying for a few. Prashant Jain, who obtained his license from the Ministry of Tourism in 1996, has worked as an official guide in Agra for the past 24 years. Well-versed with the tricks of the trade, Jain is doubtful of whether this influx can revive business for those in his profession.
“The thing is, Indian tourists rarely hire a guide, at least here (in Agra). They assume that they don’t need one because they’ve read about the Taj Mahal in their history books. Admittedly, a lot of Indian tourists are also budget travellers, so for them to be spending even Rs800-900 on a guided tour could be more than they’d wish to account for. So, most of us will have to wait for international tourism to resume in the city,” he says.
The wait will be a tough one for Jain, as by his own admission, guides only get paid on the job. On an average, Jain says he earns approximately between Rs2,200-4,500 a day, but not every work week amounts to seven days.
Gauri Pauchari, a guide for the past 13 years, too is not as optimistic. “This is my full-time occupation. But going forth post-lockdown, a lot of people like me are going to have to also take on part-time projects, considering that tourism in the city may not pick up for the next couple of months. We do need to survive.”
For now, even with misgivings, the hope for the revival of tourism in Agra lies with domestic tourists. Perhaps it might take the Taj Mahal, ever present but also ever resplendent, to remind Indians of the unmissable beauty of being a traveller again.
The city has always been associated with the golden age of the Mughal Dynasty. The Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal are usual suspects sought after by the average tourist. However, what’s often left undisclosed, is Agra’s compelling colonial history that dates back to the 15th century and begs for discovery.
Hidden far from view, the fading mint-green tomb of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s munshi, is impossible to find without help. To reach the tomb, visitors have to make their way through the Panchkuin Kabaristan littered with stones and weeds. After Victoria’s passing, Karim returned to Agra, where he built two statues and a school in her name.
A small slice of catholic heritage lies contained within the red-sandstone domes of the Roman Catholic Cemetery, believed to be the oldest Christian burial ground in North India. The most striking tomb on the grounds belongs to Mr. John Hessings, and is called the ‘Red Taj’ due to its uncanny resemblance to the Taj Mahal.
Established in 1828, this protestant church was built in neo-gothic style by Colonel John Theophilus Boileau, an army engineer who sailed to India in 1822. Having stood the test of time, the cathedral’s interiors, such as the altar, are built in expensive marble while the exterior stands tall with its yellow-ochre stucco-and-white dressings.
Emperor Akbar’s association with the Jesuit Priests of Goa led him to allow the latter to build the Catholic Church of Agra in 1598, which served as the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. Flanked by a well-maintained garden with pretty yellow flowers, the church’s lime-yellow exterior is elegant in its simplicity.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.