From the Heartland: Tourist flung notes, asked how currency could be declared invalid overnight

Demonetisation outside the Taj: tourists angry, exchange counters shut, curio shops offer discounts, guides missing.

Written by Ishita Mishra , Apurva | Agra | Updated: November 28, 2016 6:33 am
demonetisation, currency notes ban, tourism, demonetisation tourism, tourism in UP, india news, latest news, indian express Goods pile up at shops in Agra. Praveen Khanna

After the initial chaos caused by the demonetisation move in the middle of Agra’s peak tourism season, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) agreed to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes at ticket counters to help visitors stranded with the withdrawn currency. But then, the ASI’s ticket data for the next two days showed a curious surge.

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Ticket sales in Fatehpur Sikri increased by 3,800 per cent on November 10 and November 11. While ticket sales average about 197 every day, sales rose to 7,613. “This was not a tourism surge but travel operators buying tickets with old currency in advance. These tickets are valid for six months,” says a senior ASI official. The ASI amended its order on November 12 to ensure that the tickets issued on old notes would be valid only for a week, and sales immediately dropped to normal.

It’s been 20 days now since the currency was withdrawn, and along the usually bustling lanes around Taj Mahal, most shops advertising foreign exchange are shut, curio shops are offering huge discounts, the ubiquitous guide is all but invisible. And, the tourists are gradually coming to terms with this new reality.

Steve, an advertising professional from London on a shoestring budget, has cut expenses further. “I read about this a little and it was on the news. I landed in Mumbai on November 16 with a wad of notes and stood in a line for three hours to exchange some money. Since then, I have only gone to places where I can swipe my card. It’s safer,” he says.

But in Agra, Steve hasn’t been able to use his card, either. “The entry at all tourist spots is higher for foreigners but there is no system to use cards. To see the Taj, I had to fork out 50 per cent of the cash I had left. A card machine would have made things simpler,” he says, adding that card machines to buy tickets at railway stations would have helped, too.

Sources in the ASI said they had been directed to set up card machines at ticket windows but the process has been delayed since banks are busy dealing with customers and the cash crunch. “Money is always an issue and tourists, especially foreigners, are facing problems. But we are doing all that we can to help them,” says Munnazar Ali, ASI’s Taj Mahal circle conservation assistant.

Travis, from Columbus, USA, says he has been forced to depend on touts. “I had about Rs 10,000 in old 500 and 1,000 notes and had no idea about this policy change. I was put in touch with some currency-changers, who bought the rupees for dollars at a ridiculous exchange rate of Rs 50 when the actual rate is closer to Rs 67. But I had no other option, I have three days to go and will have to manage,” he says.

Both Steve and Travis request that only their first names to be used but guides and shopkeepers here agree that the first few days of post-demonetisation were traumatic for tourists.

”On November 9, a foreign tourist travelling with eight others was told at the ticket window that the Rs 1,000 notes he had could not be used. He argued for 30 minutes, then tore up the notes and flung it at the counter,” says Ehsaan, a tour guide at the east gate.

After running a moderately successful foreign exchange outlet and internet cafe in Agra’s Kutta Park, adjoining the south gate of Taj Mahal, Manish says he has had to change his business model. A sign that advertises foreign exchange has been moved to the back of his shop and a stack of postcards, which lay unused for months, had made its way to the front.

The foreign exchange business has stopped since November 12, four days after the Centre announced the demonetisation policy. “Initially, business boomed as several foreigners were stranded here with wads of notes rendered useless. Soon, we ran out of money to exchange. This is my uncle’s shop and I am actually a guide. I stopped my work and sat at the shop while my uncle stood in queues to get cash,” says Manish, swatting dust off the postcards.

After the short-lived windfall, Manish sticks to Internet and postcards. “Most foreign tourists come to Agra from Delhi for day trips. Very few actually stay here. By November 12, most foreigners were not using Indian currency or cash,” he says.

The cash shortage has proved a boon to anyone with a point of sale (POS) device to swipe cards. “Business has more than doubled in the last couple of weeks. The first question tourists ask when they enter is whether we accept cards,” says a manager at a popular coffee chain, who requested anonymity.

According to Rakesh Chauhan, president of Hotel and Restaurant association, the tourism season, which should be at its peak from November to March, was taking more than just an immediate hit since tourists were “taking back memories” of trouble, chaos and mismanagement.

Officials in three hotels say their guestbooks for three days after November 8 is evidence of this — comments include “never coming back to India”, “poorly managed” and “left a bad taste”.

”That tourist who flung those notes asked us how currency could be declared invalid overnight. After that incident, along with the Agra administration, we erected a temporary currency exchange counter, especially for foreign tourists, near Taj Mahal,” says Chauhan.

Rajeev Saxena, secretary, Tourism Guild Agra, says, “Tourism was supposed to surge by around 150 per cent in November but is down to just 20-30 per cent. Hotels are almost empty and people are cancelling their trips after hearing of the chaos following demonetisation.”

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  1. B
    Bharti
    Nov 28, 2016 at 4:21 am
    Just before the announcement of note bank on 08-Nove evening, all banks dispensed the notes of 500 and 1000 the same note became black money immediate next day. I was in need of money and and withdraw my fixed deposit premature on 01st November for Rs 40,000. bank given me all 1000 notes. same notes became in valid in the market when gone to bank I became object of depositing the black money.
    Reply
    1. V
      Vedic_Citizen
      Nov 28, 2016 at 1:03 am
      We apologize for the inconveniences, that was inevitable. Situation has improved, many ATMs are functional
      Reply
      1. A
        Adrian Akau
        Nov 28, 2016 at 2:54 am
        Implementation for demonetization was ill thought out. It was probably not thought at all which is a reflection of poor planning on the part of the administration.
        Reply
        1. J
          Joydeep
          Nov 28, 2016 at 12:04 am
          When our guests are put to so much trouble , just think of the citizens. The dictator has destro the economy.
          Reply
          1. D
            dinesh
            Nov 28, 2016 at 5:56 am
            Cant these foreigners stand in a queue for a few days? Dont they know that our jawans stand for so long hours without food and water at the border? Anti-national tourists. send them to stan.
            Reply
            1. L
              LOL
              Nov 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm
              None of us actually have any idea of the positive outcomes but its really amazing to see bhakts reaction. Even world's renowned economists have questioned this move but bhakts I don't know how took this rhetorical step as " Arey bade gain k liye chhotey pain seh lenge". How do they got this $hit that there is bigger gain waiting for us ahead ? Again govt succeeded in making fool of it's own ccountry men in the name of patriotism.
              Reply
              1. G
                Ginlunmang Tungnung
                Nov 28, 2016 at 5:51 am
                This is what happens when the majority of the people, and especially the educated intellectual cl, remain silent and cowed down into acquiescence by a section of loud-mouthed goons. The very self interest which was sought to be preserved by such silence becomes ultimately threatened and at risk.
                Reply
                1. N
                  nu
                  Nov 28, 2016 at 6:24 am
                  When will educated and rich Indians have to pack their bags, and leave the country.?
                  Reply
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