Bursting of firecrackers as part of the festivities worsened pollution caused by farm stubble burning in areas around the capital city. Picture: Instagram

Business travellers and tourists are avoiding New Delhi, as air pollution in India's capital reached record levels, travel agents said.

Booking inquiries for hotels and flights to New Delhi have slumped since the Hindu festival of Diwali on October 27, said Sharat Dhall, chief operating officer of the business-to-consumer segment at Yatra Online. 

Bursting of firecrackers as part of the festivities worsened pollution caused by farm stubble burning in areas around the capital city.

Business travellers 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 the state of 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 of what's considered hazardous over the weekend, increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. 

While both provincial and federal 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 percent, according to travel website Ixigo. 

On the other hand, bookings and queries from New Delhi to other destinations have increased 25 percent, Ixigo said. Last-minute bookings from Delhi to other metros like Mumbai and Bangalore have also surged 20 percent.

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 South Asia nation. 

Almost 11 million foreign tourists arrived in India last year, government data showed, as 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.

Bloomberg