Taj Mahal reopens as restrictions eased

Tourists take a selfie at the Taj Mahal in Agra after it reopened to visitors.

AFP/Sajjad Hussain

AGRA - India's famed Taj Mahal reopened on Monday as authorities pressed ahead with kickstarting the nation’s coronavirus-battered economy despite soaring infection numbers.

India, home to 1.3 billion people and some of the world's most crowded cities, has recorded more than 5.4 million COVID-19 cases, second only to the United States which it could overtake soon.

But after a strict lockdown in March that devastated the livelihoods of tens of millions of people, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reluctant to copy some other nations and tighten the screw on activity again.

Instead, in recent months his government has eased more and more restrictions including on many train routes, domestic flights, markets, restaurants -- and now, visiting the Taj Mahal.

READ: Taj Mahal to reopen even as coronavirus rages in India

"So many people lost their job during the lockdown. People have suffered a lot and it is time the country opens up fully," said bank official Ayub Sheikh, visiting the Taj with his wife and baby daughter.

"We are not afraid of the virus. If it has to infect us, it will," Sheikh told AFP. "Not many people are dying now. I don't think it is going to go away soon. We have to get used to it now."

The jaw-dropping white-marble mausoleum in Agra south of New Delhi is India's most popular tourist site. It usually draws seven million visitors a year, but has been closed since March.

Officials said strict social distancing rules were in place and visitors were not allowed to touch the marble. The famous bench where visitors sit for a photo -- most memorably Princess Diana in 1992 -- has been specially laminated so that it can be regularly sanitised without damage.

READ: India closes Taj Mahal to visitors over coronavirus fears

Security personnel were reminding everyone to wear masks once photos have been clicked. Daily visitor numbers have been capped at 5,000 -- a quarter the normal rate.

"Coronavirus is there in every country," Spanish visitor Ainhoa Parra told AFP. "We are taking all the safety measures that we can. We have to be careful but if we have to get infected we will."

"So many livelihoods depend on the Taj. It's great to be back in business," said local official Satish Joshi.