by Chris Leadbeater, The Daily Telegraph, January 5, 2018
Tightropes are not confined to circuses and the occasional sepia photo of a daredevil trying to walk across the Grand Canyon on a single stretch of cable. Tourism is the owner of a long and wobbly high-wire which crops up all over the planet - particularly in those locations where epic heritage rubs against a keen desire to bear witness to it.
Anyone who has been to Rome and ambled into the Colosseum - or flown to the heights of Peru and strolled the cobbles of Machu Picchu - will know the problem. People. Loads and loads and loads of people - milling around in what are often fragile contexts.
On the one hand, you have sites of inestimable historic worth. On the other you have a global population that has never travelled more, and never been better informed about the glories in its midst.
How can these two elements occupy the same precarious ropeway without everybody falling off? How do you prevent the planet's wanderlust and curiosity from damaging its own yesterdays; from ruining everything that makes us want to reach for our cameras? And how to do it in an epoch when so many have the time and the money to see what they want, whenever they want to - and at whatever price?
This issue - protecting the past, or profiting from it - has come to the fore again this week with the news that India is considering imposing limits on the number of tourists able to visit the Taj Mahal.
As headlines go, this one hardly comes as a surprise. The crush of humanity that generally envelops what is surely the most famous mausoleum on the planet can be an exhausting experience. A morning at the Taj Mahal is usually an exercise in survival - an attritional process of pushing, jostling and trying to keep out of the way of carelessly wafted selfie sticks. It makes the final resting place of an empress resemble an electronics store during the opening hours of the Boxing Day sales.
This glorious Agra landmark is, of course, a totem of grief and love - commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in tribute to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. It was meant to be a symbol of serenity. Yet time in its company can feel anything but serene, whatever the image conveyed by that iconic picture of a solitary Princess Diana, seated on a bench in front of the structure, in February 1992. If ever there were a tourist attraction where numbers need to be limited, this might be it.
This is not just a matter of overcrowding. It is one of preservation. The Taj Mahal has been suffering for some time. The pale marble from which it was so carefully crafted is being yellowed by air pollution. The River Yamuna which runs alongside it is dank and contaminated. It is assaulted by monkeys, who clamber up its facade. It plays host to eight million souls per year, when the blueprint envisaged it as the home of just one.
However, talk of, on some level, curtailing access to it, raises a number of questions.
The first is: How will this cap work?
Plans are still vague, but under proposals submitted to the country's tourism ministry by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the most probable course of action is that domestic tourists will be limited to a total of 40,000 per day, with individual visits being restricted to three hours per person.
The second question is: Is this fair? The key phrase in the paragraph above is not "40,000 per day", but "domestic tourists" - the Indian travellers who are currently allowed to pay 40 Rupees (46p) for entry to the site.
It is they, rather than international visitors - who are currently asked to cough up the stiffer cost of 1,000 Rupees (£11.63) - who will bear the brunt of the likely changes.
True, Indians will still be able to purchase the higher-priced international ticket - for which numbers will not be limited - if the day's domestic quota has already been reached. But in a developing country where the average daily wage is 270 Rupees (£3.14), this will be a prohibitive amount for many. Imagine the fury if a similar policy was adopted at Stonehenge or Westminster Abbey.
The third question is: Will this make any difference?
And the answer is: Almost certainly not.
Even the most rudimentary mathematical calculations show why. Forty thousand domestic tourists a day equates to 14.6million people over the course of a year - and that is before you add in international visitors. This suggests that the current official annual head-count of eight million is a massive under-estimate. The Taj Mahal is enormously over-subscribed, and a tinkering with tickets is not going to change this.
The rethink seems to have been sparked by a disturbing incident last month - a small stampede at the east entry gate on December 28 that saw five people sustain injuries as late-comers tried to force their way into the complex just before closing time. The Taj Mahal is also, according to some sources, currently in the "bad books" of Uttar Pradesh's (the state in which Agra sits) recently elected Hindu nationalist government - whose leader, Yogi Adityanath, reportedly views it as an Islamic monument at odds with his country's past (he has said that the mausoleum does "not reflect Indian culture"). It remains to be seen whether the idea of limiting numbers at the Taj Mahal is hot air based on recent events - or evidence of a determination to tackle an issue.
But whether this is lip service or concerned forward planning, any indication of a desire to tackle the Taj Mahal's people problem is part of a growing trend.
Peru took a step towards safeguarding the future of Machu Picchu last June when it announced a new ticketing system which has limited the number of people able to plod round the Andean citadel at any one time. There has been similar talk of staunching the flow of tourists through the Cinque Terre villages of north-western Italy, using a "traffic light" system for its coastal paths (although nothing has yet materialised).
The planet is heading, slowly, towards a time, when its most celebrated sites are not freely available to all who wish to enjoy them. It may be that this is done through the brute economics of restricting them to those who can afford to pay for the privilege - a policy which will spark anger, frustration and no little debate.
But Mumtaz Mahal's mausoleum will not be the last place to look at the crowds at its gates, and declare "not today, thank you."