Taj Mahal reopens: ′New 7 World Wonders′ and the pandemic | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.06.2021
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Taj Mahal reopens: 'New 7 World Wonders' and the pandemic

India's Taj Mahal is among the so-called New Seven Wonders of the World that has seen tourist numbers plummet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

India's most famous tourist attraction — the Taj Mahal — reopens on Wednesday after it was shut down for a second time two months ago. 

Located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh — which was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic — the Taj Mahal was shut down a first time in March 2020 when India imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns. 

It was then reopened in September to fewer visitors, before once again closing in mid-April this year, when a deadly second wave of the pandemic spread through the world's second most populous nation. 

Major cities, including the capital New Delhi and the financial capital Mumbai, have slowly begun easing lockdown measures given recent declining infection rates. 

Speaking to the AFP news agency, an official of the Archaeological Survey of India said that besides the usual COVID-19 precautions, visitors will be prohibited from touching the surfaces of the famed 17th-century marble mausoleum, that saw up to 70,000 visitors per day pre-pandemic.

"Visitors will have to step on a sponge-like platform which will act as a sanitizer for shoes," he added. 

Breathing space for the world's architectural wonders?

Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a monument of love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died during childbirth, the Taj Mahal is one of the so-called New Seven Wonders of the World that has seen visitor numbers plummet because of COVID-related restrictions.  

While this has ostensibly affected the incomes of countries and communities living off tourism, the lack of visitors meant a "break" of sorts for some "overtrodden" ancient sites. 

For instance, Jordan's ancient city of Petra fell silent when travel restrictions were enforced last year, drawing instead cats and dogs to wander amongst the more than 2,000-year-old tombs and temples carved into pink sandstone cliffs, that give it its nickname, the "Rose City."

Stray cat looking at the Monastery in Petra, Wadi Musa, Jordan.

Except for cats and dogs, the city of Petra largely stood still during Jordan's lockdown

Before the pandemic, hordes of visitors on cruise ships would descend upon the site, sometimes stretching its daily capacity. Speaking to NPR in May last year, Petra's tourism commissioner Suleiman Farajat had said that while the shutdown had had devastating economic repercussions, it had eased pressure on the ancient city. 

"Now the site can breathe," he said. "It's like ... it says, 'I'm happy to be alone now and I'm happy to relax,' because it was consumed too much."

Similarly, Mexico's Chichen Itza usually sees thousands flock to the ancient city built by the Maya. They come to observe an astronomical phenomenon known as the descent of Kukulkan, or feathered serpent, during the spring equinox. 

Occurring typically in March, the phenomenon is caused by the sun's rays against the northwest corner of the Kukulkan pyramid that casts a series of triangular shadows against the opposite wall, creating the appearance of a serpent descending the structure. 

A bunch of hands lifted towards a crowded temple site at Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Crowds such as these have not been seen two years in a row now in Chichen Itza, Mexico

While the site has been open since last September, the spring equinox event that draws thousands has been canceled two years in a row now. 

The silver lining to being stranded

When the pandemic struck last year, many travelers scrambled to travel home before borders were shut. 

When Peru closed Machu Picchu in mid-March 2020, Japanese boxing instructor Jesse Katayama couldn't believe his ill luck. He had especially traveled from Japan to see the famous 15th-century Inca citadel, only to have a national state of emergency declared a day shy of his visit. 

While fellow Japanese travelers stuck in Peru were eventually flown home on repatriation flights, Katayama opted to stay on in the nearby town Aguas Calientes, hopeful that Machu Picchu would be reopened soon. 

By the end of seven months, his hope was fast dwindling like his savings. 

Sunny view of Machu Picchu.

Stranded Japanese tourist, Jesse Katayama, had the unexpected luck to have Machu Picchu all to himself

Sympathetic locals learned of his plight and lobbied Peru's Ministry of Culture to make an exception for him. Shortly before his eventual departure last October, the Peruvian government reopened Machu Picchu just for Katayama, giving him an unparalleled opportunity to view the ruins with just the site director and photographers for company. 

Back in business

The Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome and the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil make up the rest of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The sites, which were shortlisted for the title via an online popularity poll in 2007, have all reopened, but with reduced capacity and following strict protocols. 

Footage of thousands of Chinese tourists thronging the Great Wall during a May Day holiday last month in China where the pandemic first began, made headlines as countries elsewhere in the world continue to grapple with new variants of the pandemic. 

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