Tourists Are Avoiding Delhi As Air Pollution Reaches Record Levels

Business travelers and tourists are avoiding New Delhi, as air pollution in the capital reached record levels, travel agents said.

Booking inquiries for hotels and flights to New Delhi have slumped since the festival of Diwali on October 27, said Sharat Dhall, chief operating officer of the business-to-consumer segment at Yatra Online Inc. Bursting of firecrackers as part of the festivities worsened pollution caused by farm stubble burning in areas around the city.

Business travelers are looking to reschedule their visits to a later date, Dhall said in an email, adding that tourists are preferring Himalayan hill stations and destinations in Rajasthan, home to the Thar desert, over New Delhi, famous for the 12th-century Qutab Minar and the Red Fort, built in the 17th century.

Pollution levels in New Delhi surged to more than three times what's considered hazardous over the weekend, increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. While both state and central governments have taken steps, including limiting private vehicles usage and shuttering factories, they have been unable to stop farmers from burning crop stubble -- smoke from which is the main reason for air becoming a lethal cocktail at this time of the year.

Bookings and travel searches for New Delhi from key international areas including Singapore, Thailand, and Qatar have fallen 44%, according to travel website Ixigo. On the other hand, bookings and queries from New Delhi to other destinations have increased 25%, Ixigo said. Last-minute bookings from Delhi to other metros like Mumbai and Bangalore have also surged 20%.

Rising pollution levels is an added problem for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is trying to reverse an economic slowdown as he seeks to lure investors to the country. Almost 11 million foreign tourists arrived in India last year, government data showed, as PM Modi's administration unveiled a campaign to showcase everything from the country's mountains to deserts and rain forests to wildlife parks.

Those numbers could stall, or even fall if the world's worst pollution changes the perception of potential visitors about health hazards in the nation.

The air quality index, or AQI, was more than 200 at several places in New Delhi at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, after breaching 1,000 over the weekend, according to website AirVisual, which monitors air pollution around the world. Readings above 200 are considered very dangerous and anything below 50 is the safe level. In comparison, several cities in the U.S. and Japan had readings of below 20 on Tuesday.

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