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Survey of India (ASI) agreed to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes at ticket counters to help visitors stranded with the withdrawn currency.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It’s been 20 days now since the currency was withdrawn, and along the usually bustling lanes around Taj Mahal, most shops advertising foreign exchange are shut, curio shops are offering huge discounts, the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.”