By Brij Khandelwal

Agra, July 3 (IANS) The Tourism industry captains in Agra have welcomed the decision of the Union Culture Ministry to reopen the Taj Mahal and other ASI protected monuments for visitors from July 6.

While the industry has started making preparations, a few doubting Thomases and some health activists here wondered if “it was a little early and premature as the COVID-19 infection spread has not yet been effectively checked.”

Union Culture Minister Prahlad Singh tweeted Thursday that ASI monuments could now be opened taking necessary precautions and full safety measures.

“When trains are not running and international flights have not resumed, from where and how the tourists will come to Agra which does not boast of international standard health infrastructure,” asked social activist Shravan Kumar Singh.

The ASI officials, however, have clarified that entry would be allowed with a set of restrictions listed in the SOPs which will need to be strictly followed by the tourists.

To give a momentum to tourism, which had been badly hit due to the Covid-19 scourge, local hoteliers have demanded resumption of flights to Agra, starting international flights and connecting Agra with important destinations within the country. The tourist season generally starts in the last week of September.

Right now all big hotels are carrying out maintenance and repair work. The properties have been sanitised and hygiene standards upgraded to meet international requirements.

Akhilesh Dubey, a tourism industry captain, who had demanded that the monuments be opened as people were suffering economic hardships due to the four month-closure, said “it will not be risky, provided they frame SOPs, fix the number of visitors. When airports, malls, hotels can reopen why not monuments. Agra remains a favourite weekend destination for the domestic visitors. People come to Agra by taxis and private cars. The reopening will create confidence among stakeholders and boost tourism. The Eiffel Tower has also reopened on June 25.”

The Taj Mahal is annually visited by over seven million tourists. Entry to children below 15 is free. On the recommendation of the Dr. S. Vardarajan Committee, the Supreme Court allowed the Taj Mahal to enjoy a weekly holiday on Friday.

The 100-day respite, has healed the scars and wounds inflicted on the fragile monument by air pollution. The whole complex looks fresh and rejuvenated, waiting to welcome guests.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has decided to allow only 5,000 visitors daily, 2,500 in the morning shift and 2,500 post-lunch. Face covers and social distancing would be compulsory. Group photography will not be permitted. Monuments in the containment zones will remain closed.

The Taj Mahal, India’s most visited monument, was closed in the last week of March, due to surge in Covid-19 cases. This was the first time in the monument’s almost 375 year old history that the doors were shut to visitors, for over 100 days. During the 1971 war with Pakistan, the Taj was closed for 15 days. In 1978, visitors were not allowed for almost a week due to flood in Yamuna.

Meanwhile, rising Covid-19 cases continued to cause worry. Twelve fresh cases were added in the past 24 hours taking the total tally to 1,253. The number of deaths is now 89, with one more added on Thursday.

The number of active cases is 130. The sample size was 24,054, health department bulletin said.

The tally for Firozabad is 522, Mathura 385, Mainpuri 258, Etah 140 and Kasganj has 77 corona cases.

–IANS

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