Frustrated and sore with the continued neglect of Agra by the state and central governments, the World Tourism Day celebrations in the Taj City brought little cheer or hope for buoyancy, even as a new tourist season is about to begin.
Half a dozen local WhatsApp groups were full of gloomy posts as tourism industry leaders expressed deep concern over the cold apathy of the state government to promote Agra as the country’s number one destination.
Senior tourism industry leaders said, “There was nothing much to look forward to as a number of our demands that could spurt the growth in this vital sector have been rejected or cold-storaged.”
The travel trade laments the lack of air connectivity to Agra. “Smaller cities have regular flights but not India’s tourist destination number one,” says Anil Sharma, spearheading a movement for an international airport at Agra, for the past several years.
The hotel industry has been affected not only by the rising burden of a variety of taxes but also by the falling graph of visitors staying overnight in Agra is a major cause for concern. The Supreme Court is seized of crucial issues like declaring Agra a heritage city and imposing restrictions on industrial development. “This has created an uncertainty, as hotels can neither expand nor open new units in the city because of the ad hoc moratorium on industries,” says Agra Development Foundation secretary K.C. Jain.
“The city’s growth is stunted. This is because of the total lack of futuristic planning, there is neither the will nor any major policy push being contemplated by the state government, which had made many promises at the time of the elections. The UP tourism department looks hardly prepared to create the kind of ambiance required to take advantage of the boom in the industry after the recent G 20 summit," Anil Sharma, president of the Agra Civil Society said.
Tourism organisations in Agra on Wednesday organised the ritualistic welcome of tourists at the railway stations and at different hotels. But there was little else to commemorate the day and no sign of activity to make the city anymore "tourist-friendly".
Agra is one of India's top tourist destinations. Yet, it lacks basic infrastructure, and thus cannot take advantage of the interest generated in India and its tourist attractions, Sharma added.
"The Mayawati government did nothing, and we had great hopes from the young Akhilesh Yadav, while the Yogi Adityanath government seems more interested in Mathura and Vrindavan, Ayodhya and Varanasi to appease Hindu sentiments than focus on Agra, the city of many glorious Mughal monuments,” hotelier Sandip Arora said.
"We thought the scenario would change for the better, we expected some action on our long list of demands. So far, however, there is nothing to indicate that the state government is treating Agra as a priority," Rakesh Chauhan, hotel industry captain said.
Leaders in the tourism and hospitality industry in the city said that there was a lack of vision and of will, in the political leadership of the state. "Even with three world heritage monuments, Agra has not been able to significantly increase the number of visitors; and those who visit often make brief trips. Neither the state nor the central government seems interested in promoting Agra. The Yamuna Expressway has made it easier for tourists to return the same day to Delhi. The hotel industry in Agra has little to look forward to in the next tourist season," Rakesh Chauhan, president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association said.
Industry leader Rajiv Gupta said “The tourism sector needs big initiatives. The outlook for the coming season is bleak, with the general slowdown. The situation now is no different from 1982, when we had presented a memorandum to the central government."
"Our demand for a decent civil airport in Agra has been cold-storaged. Smaller cities like Mysore had an airport and were more easily accessible to tourists," he added.
The UP tourism department has still to evolve a tourism policy for the state. Agra gets a lot of money from various agencies, but where it goes no one knows. Why is there no proper mechanism for monitoring? Tourism bodies have hardly done anything to promote lesser-known monuments in and around Agra. "The result is that most tourists visit the Taj Mahal and return the same evening. We need a comprehensive action plan for tourism development for the whole Braj region that includes Mathura, Vrindavan, Bateshwar, and several important sites of religious importance,” Tourist guide Ved Gautam said.
The annual World Tourism Day was observed by several organisations in the city but most people gave it a miss. A sense of detachment and cold apathy has been visible as conservationists and the industrial lobby fight out a long-drawn battle in various forums, including the apex court.
Even with three world heritage monuments and half a dozen other architectural marvels, the locals feel no sense of pride in their heritage which draws millions of visitors from all corners of the world around the year.
The ‘disconnect’ between local aspirations and heritage or history, is causing concern as conservational efforts need emotional involvement of the citizens of the city, said heritage conservationist Devashish Bhattacharya. “It is a sad fact that Agra is not tourism-friendly and the locals see tourism as a hurdle in their march towards material prosperity,” he adds.