The tourist season here usually begins on the World Tourism Day on September 27.
"The footfalls at the Taj Mahal may have increased due to the opening of the Yamuna Expressway which most 'same-day return' visitors find convenient and time-saving, but the night-stay problem continues to dog hotels in Agra. The occupancy rate at the moment is very low and reports for coming weeks are not too flattering either," Rajiv Tiwari, president of the Federation of Travel Agencies, told IANS.
Figures from the Archaeological Survey of India and the Agra Development Authority suggest an increasing trend in the number of visitors to the Taj Mahal, which attracted close to six million tourists last year. The number could be higher if you take into account the fact that a significantly large number of visitors who do not have to pay are below 15 years of age and, therefore, not recorded.
"A lot of people keep telling us Agra does not have a night life and that is the reason why tourists do not stay here overnight. Well, if by night life they mean promoting activities like they do in Thailand's Pataya or Phuket, we certainly are very happy with selling our assets of culture, architecture and history.
"We have yoga, dances and cuisines. We are for clean eco-friendly tourism, one that brings peoples of the world and cultures closer and strengthens understanding. Our religious tourism is growing and the number of domestic visitors is going up steeply in the whole of the Braj region," Tiwari added.
According to Sandeep Arora, ex-president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association, "the increased entrance ticket rates for foreign tourists (Rs.750/USD 12) is a huge deterrent. If a tourist has seen the Taj once, he avoids visiting it again because he would need to buy another ticket for Rs.750. Earlier this was not the case."
Arora said tourism in Agra was on the decline due to the crisis in Syria. "A large number of western tourists are holding back till the crisis gets resolved."
He felt the new trains that have connected Agra with Jaipur have also affected night stay, as tourists return in the evening to Jaipur.
"The publicity by Rajasthan is aggressive and their marketing is also first class unlike in Uttar Pradesh, where tourism is generally directionless. Agra has so much to offer but no marketing strategy. In contrast, Varanasi has virtually nothing except the Ganga ghats but more foreign tourists spend days and nights there, moving around temples and lanes."
Rajiv Narain, vice president Jaypee Hotel and former president of the Tourism Guild of Agra, told IANS: "Yes, the slowdown in global economy and the tension in the Middle East has had their impact on tourism in Agra. In October there could be a turnaround, but for the moment, there's nothing exciting."
"We are still way away from our targets. A lot could have been done to bolster tourism in the Taj city, but we have not been able to make tourism everybody's business and get people involved through theatre, various cultural activities or opening new avenues to keep tourists engaged in the evenings," Narain added.
On the flip side, Dinesh Kumar, the deputy director of Uttar Pradesh Tourism, felt it was "too early to come to any conclusion. We do not have any information on this. But it's true that the number of visitors at the Taj Mahal has gone up. Night stay, after the opening of the Yamuna Expressway, has been affected."
Hotelier Surendra Sharma told IANS: "The anticipated windfall from the falling rupee has not materialised. Where have the tourists gone? No one knows. But the socio-political conditions and the general attitude of the locals are not very positive or friendly. Tourism is yet to be accepted as a serious money-spinning activity in Agra."
With three World Heritage Sites, scores of other monuments, the religious shrines in Mathura-Vrindavan, the land of Ghalib, Meer and Nazir, plus the headquarters of the Radhasoami faith, Agra does not so much need promotion, Sharma contended.
"What this city badly needs is a change in the cultural mindset, a warm and friendly ambience and reasonable security to allow tourists to spend time in a memorable way," said K.C. Jain, president of the Agra Development Foundation.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
--IANS (Posted on 26-09-2013)