Wednesday, March 19, 2008

US Dollar no longer welcome at Taj Mahal

America's pride, the dollar, that was all-powerful till recently is losing its sheen. In yet another troubling sign for the greenback, at least one of the seven wonders of the world is now off limits if you have only U.S. currency in your pocket.

India's tourism minister said Thursday that the dollar will no longer be accepted at the Taj Mahal and other national tourist sites.

Until the change, foreign tourists visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, south-west of Delhi, could enter by paying a fixed $5 (£2.45) fee – a price that was set when the dollar was worth around R50. But with the dollar having fallen by 12 per cent this year against the rupee and the current exchange rate closer to R39 to the dollar, the government has now fixed the entry price for foreigners at R250 – more than $6.

Charging only rupees now seems more practical and will save tourists money because "the dollar was weaker against the rupee," says Tourism Minister Ambika Soni.

Indians pay around R10 or R20 to enter the archaeological sites, a disparity often questioned by foreign visitors but defended by the authorities, who say most overseas visitors are considerably wealthier than the locals.

At the moment, nationals from the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation also do not have to pay the higher fee. Neither do foreigners holding a Person of Indian Origin card. But if India's economic boom – with growth of more than 8 per cent a year and a newly wealthy middle class – continues, the authorities may have to rethink the pricing structure.

The snub to the dollar by the Indian authorities is just the latest indication of how many are now turning away from what for generations was considered the safest of the world's currencies. After months of turmoil, partly created by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage markets in the US, the lack of confidence in the dollar has reached the point where many international traders are transferring their wealth to stronger currencies such as sterling or the euro.

India earned an estimated $6.5bn last year from the more than four million tourists who visited the country, many of whom will have made the journey to the Taj Mahal to visit India's most famous – and now, probably most expensive – monument.

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