Agra: On World Tourism Day Thursday, Taj city Agra has little to celebrate in spite of being a favourite tourist destination. This is because of the total lack of forward planning, industry stakeholders say.
"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 elections. The UP tourism department looks hardly prepared to create the kind of ambience required to encash the boom in the industry," said Shishir Bhagat, president of Wake Up Agra, an NGO working on different issues that people in the city face.
Tourism organisations in Agra Thursday organised the ritual welcome of tourists at the railway station and at different hotels. But there was little else to commemorate the day and no sign of activity to make the city any more "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, said Surendra Sharma, founder-president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association.
"The (previous) Mayawati government did nothing, and we had great hopes from the young Akhilesh Yadav (the present chief minister)," Sharma said, talking of how successive chief ministers have let the city down.
"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," Sharma lamented.
Rakesh Chauhan and Sandeep Arora, 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," Chauhan, president of the Agra Hotels and Restuarants Association, told IANS.
The president of the Federation of Travel Agents of India, Rajiv Tiwari, said: "Yes, we welcomed foreign tourists in the morning. Right now, we are taking some students on a Sadbhavna Yatra from Agra Fort. But these activities are hardly enough to sustain tourism, which needs big initiatives. The outlook for the coming season is bleak, with the slowdown in Europe. The situation now is no different from 1982, when we had presented a memorandum to the central government."
"What could be more amazing than the fact that there are no flights and no air connectivity with Agra? Our demand for a decent civil airport in Agra has been cold storaged. We had asked for the extension of the Metro rail to Agra. Even this was not granted. All our leaders do is grab land and make money," said a frustrated Chauhan, who pointed out that smaller cities like Mysore had an airport and were more easily accessible to tourists.
The Akhilesh Yadav government has not reduced the luxury tax, as was promised. There has yet been no announcement of reduction in Value Added Tax for airline fuel at the Kheria airport as was announced by the chief minister a few months ago. 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. There should be a proper mechanism for monitoring, Chauhan said.
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," said director of Agra University's Tourism Institute, Lav Kush Mishra, who wanted a comprehensive action plan for tourism development for the whole Braj region that includes Mathura, Vrindavan, Bateshwar, and several important sites of religious importance.
Ashok Jain, leading handicrafts exporter and owner of the Kalakriti auditorium which runs the 90-minute audio visual show "Mohabbat the Taj", told IANS: "We have to do a lot of work on the cultural promotion work, to make sure that tourists extend their stay in Agra. Only then will the city gain from tourism."
In all this, there was a glimmer of hope.
"There is hope, the season looks good, going by early trends. We should see a boom in tourist arrivals this year," Paritosh Ladani, the owner of the five-star Radisson Hotel, told IANS.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)