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Rs 3,000 crore and 4 lakh jobs, the price Agra tourism is paying for coronavirus

Apart from hotels, businesses like handicraft emporiums, as well as those engaged in leather, zardozi and marble inlay work, also rely heavily on tourism.

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Agra: When Sanjeev Singh, a 39-year-old hotelier in Agra, ventured into the hospitality business two years ago, little did he anticipate the losses it would incur in 2020 with people across the world confined to their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The city that was choc-a-bloc with tourists prior the Covid-19 outbreak, is unusually quiet these days. The Taj Mahal complex, Uttar Pradesh’s main attraction and a major source of revenue for the state tourism industry, wears a deserted look. The monument has been closed for the time being.

Singh, the owner of a 3-star property — Hotel Taj Delux — in the city, is now staring at losses running into Rs 20 crore. He is faced with a double whammy — of paying bills and salaries of his hotel staff, along with the cancellation of all bookings for the year.

“I constructed the hotel with a cost of Rs 40 crore and another Rs 15 crore was spent on interiors and other amenities. With everything shut down all of a sudden, I’m staring at a minimum loss of Rs 15-20 crore as the hotel would have started giving profitable returns only by December this year,” he told ThePrint.

Singh is hardly the only one facing such uncertainty. Hundreds of hotel and tourism business owners in Agra find themselves at the crossroads, with the shutdown of Taj Mahal and a countrywide lockdown.

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Slump threatening businesses

Not only the hospitality sector, many other businesses like the handicrafts emporiums, as well as those engaged in leather, zardozi and marble inlay work also rely heavily on the Taj tourist traffic for their sustenance. Tourists visiting the monument have been their primary customers.

According to data given by the Ministry of Culture to the Lok Sabha, revenue earned from the Taj Mahal had gone up to around four times over five years in 2018-2019.

The revenue generated from this UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018-2019 was Rs 86.48 crore from a little over 70 lakh visitors. The previous year’s revenue stood at Rs 58.76 crore from nearly 65 lakh visitors.

Five years ago, in 2014-15, the revenue generated from the Taj was Rs 21.23 crore with over 60 lakh people visiting the site.

Arun Dang, former head of the Agra Travel and Tourism Association, told ThePrint, “One in four foreign tourists who enter India come to visit the Taj. Agra also has other 250 heritage monuments and three world heritage sites.”

He added: “Travel and tourism would be the last option that anyone would take during a pandemic. We are looking at an extended period of decline in businesses. The slump can go on for months or even a year. The government should waive at least the rental, electricity charges of our hotels for the time being.”

Dang also pointed out that Agra has 12 five-star and 400 other small hotels with an inventory of 6,000-7,000 rooms. The hospitality industry in the city employs around 4 lakh people, with an economic contribution of Rs 3,000 crore.

All of this has been brought to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic across the globe.

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Shutdown came in peak period

Almost all hoteliers ThePrint spoke to expressed disappointment that the shutdown came during the peak tourist season. Hotel owners said it is the revenue earned during this period which helps them get by for the rest of the year.

Rakesh Chauhan, president of the Agra Hotel and Restaurant Chain Association, said, “The peak tourist season in Agra starts from 1st October to 30th April. The most footfall is observed from February to April, which is the time the coronavirus outbreak has forced closures.”

He added, “The businesses had begun witnessing the impact of Covid-19 from January itself. That is the time when Chinese tourists arrive as their New Year begins. They didn’t make it this time.”

‘Agra has become a graveyard’

While the hospitality industry may still be able to keep itself afloat for the next few months, others such as tourist guides, drivers and tour agencies have been hit the most.

Mohammad Rashid, a government-approved tour guide in Agra, told ThePrint, “If the lockdown extends further then we have to resort to manual labour for our survival. Whatever money we had saved till now is getting over with each passing day as there is no income.”

“Agra used to earn from people visiting its graveyards but unfortunately the city itself has turned into a graveyard after the lockdown,” added Rashid.

Pooran Dawar, chairman of Agra Leather and Shoe Export Association, said, “Agra exports around Rs 4,000 crore worth of leather items across the world. Around 65 per cent of it is still stranded in the high seas and ports of various countries. Not only this year, we are estimating a decline of 50 per cent in orders for the next year too.”

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