Thousands flock to India's Taj Mahal despite coronavirus fears

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AGRA, India (Reuters) - India has raised the number of visitors it will allow into the Taj Mahal monument to 15,000 per day despite warnings from health officials that overcrowding at tourist sites could lead to a rise in coronavirus cases.

The 17th-century mausoleum, one of India's most popular tourist destinations, was shut in March after the government imposed a lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

When it reopened in September, visitors were initially only allowed back under strict restrictions but local officials said numbers had swelled in recent weeks, pushing them to increase the cap on tourists from 10,000 per day.

"The limit has been increased to 15,000 tickets per day so that every tourist can get the ticket and admire the monument," government archaeologist Vasant Kumar Swarnkar said.

On Wednesday, thousands of tourists, many without masks, flocked to the white marble monument, crowding around a ticket window. Families also strolled through the gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal.

Federal health officials warned on Tuesday that over-crowding at tourist spots could lead to another spike in coronavirus cases, with concern over the new, more infectious strain from Britain that has been detected in India.

India has recorded the world's second-highest number of coronavirus cases after the United States and nearly 148,500 people have died. But daily cases have hit a six-month low after a peak of around 98,000 in September.

For tourists like Pawan Gaur, who travelled to Agra from the western state of Rajasthan, visiting the Taj Mahal was a way of relaxing after what he said was a difficult year.

"People were bored of staying home during the pandemic," he said.

(Writing by Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Angus MacSwan)