Backpackers face big hike in the cost of seeing India

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The Independent Online

It's like walking into a branch of Kwik Save and discovering that everything in the store is suddenly more expensive than Fortnum & Mason.

It's like walking into a branch of Kwik Save and discovering that everything in the store is suddenly more expensive than Fortnum & Mason.

India has more World Heritage sites than any other country, and until two weeks ago all except the Taj Mahal were extraordinarily cheap to visit. Most cost 10 rupees (15p) per person. Dozens of other magnificent monuments were half that price, five rupees (8p).

Nearly all were in a ramshackle condition, with none of the guides, maps, trained attendants or multilingual signs that have become standard elsewhere. But they were undoubtedly one of the tourist industry's great bargains.

Then, on 28 October, India's Minister of Culture, Mr Anant Kumar, made India's ancient monuments some of the most expensive tourist attractions on the planet. To visit the 11th-century Western Temples at Khajuraho, famous for their erotic reliefs, cost six rupees (9p) last month; today it costs 460 rupees, an increase of 7,566 per cent. The famous Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa cost five rupees; it, too, costs 460 rupees today, a rise of 9,100 per cent. The ruined city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh also cost five rupees to visit; today a foreign tourist would have to pay 1,380 rupees for the privilege, an increase of 27,500 per cent.

The monuments are all managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has done nothing to add value to justify the huge price increases. The sites remain as shabby, forlorn and uninviting as ever. Indian tourists - and visitors of other nationalities who look like Indians - will continue to pay the derisory old prices.

The rises were sprung on the tourist industry last month with one week's notice and no publicity: the notification was tucked away in the official gazette of 24 October.

But as the news spread, the tourist business reacted with anger and dismay. "The old prices were ridiculous, but the new ones are ridiculous, too," said one major operator on condition of anonymity. "They're asking consumers to pay far more for the same product, and they've done it right at the start of the season, without any notice. Recently Indian visas have gone up between 35 and 50 per cent in price, the cost of domestic air and surface travel has risen, hotels are more expensive and rates of luxury tax have risen too. This is the last straw."

News of the dramatic price rise was greeted by protests in Agra, where Japanese tourists staged a sit-down demonstration in front of the Taj Mahal - new entrance fee, including Agra Fort, 1,430 rupees (£21.46) - waving black flags. Tour operators circulated petitions denouncing the hike among their clients; others wrote indignant letters to the ASI and the Minister of Culture and Tourism.

So far the government has shown no sign of backing down. "The government is trying to raise money," said an accountant in Delhi. "They can't raise taxes on Indians without paying a political price. Foreign tourists are an easy target."

But once word of the price rises gets around, Indophiles may find other destinations beckoning. When they find out that entrance to the Forbidden City in Peking costs one-sixth of that to the Taj Mahal and other sites in Agra, or that entrance to Egypt's pyramids costs less than half as much as that to the Sun Temple, they will begin voting with their feet, industry insiders fear.

Foreign tourism in India is already in a palsied state. In 1996 the government declared its ambition to double the annual number of foreign tourist arrivals from 2.5 million to 5 million by 2000. Today, however, the number is at 2.4 million.

The sad fact is that for those willing to shrug off the traditional irritants, India is a country of fabulous and almost unlimited appeal. But one Indian government after another fails to do anything to make the country more attractive to visitors. "The nation should take a decision on whether we want or do not want to increase the number of foreign tourists," says Mr Inder Sharma, chairman of Sita Travels. "Officially India encourages foreign tourists - then this happens. There is a contradiction."

The Indian Minister of Culture was unavailable for comment, and the director-general of the ASI, Ms Komal Anand, declined to return The Independent on Sunday's numerous calls.