India's Andaman Islands

by AFP/Michael Mathes, Mar 29, 2004 | Destinations: Thailand / India / Bangkok / Port Blair

Port Blair, India, March 28, 2004 - India's remote and spectacular Andaman islands, unexploited jewels in the Bay of Bengal, have flung open their shores to tourism with the first international air links from Bangkok.

The enchanting tropical archipelago of 572 islands -- nearly half of them unnamed and only 38 inhabited -- are blessed with miles of white-sand beaches, lush rainforests, world-class diving, sea-swimming elephants and a rich variety of animal species.

But as investors and tour operators aim to stake a claim to some of the globe's last pristine beaches and diving sites, environmentalists are worried that the fragile islands cannot endure a tourism onslaught.

Developers and the government are being urged to strike a balance between preservation and progress, as the Indian government touts tourism as the islands' economic salvation.

"These charter flights can be a trigger to open up these islands," said developer Samit Sawhny, who heads upstart Indian firm Barefoot Group, which put together the Bangkok-Port Blair charters that began this month.

The firm, which has enlisted small Thai carrier PB Air to fly the route, is spearheading the charge for controlled, high-value tourism development.

"We want to be as sustainable as possible," Sawhny told AFP. "The Andamans have incredible potential, but at the same time there are a lot of environmental concerns."

Several other constraints on the island chain, 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from mainland India but only 500 kilometres (310 miles) from Thailand's largest resort island Phuket, are putting pressure on the tourism industry.

The sleepy capital Port Blair serves as an Indian navy base, and security is tight, with travel to the Nicobar islands, south of the Andamans but in the same union territory, forbidden for foreigners.

Infrastructure is severely lacking outside Port Blair. Ferry services are slow, and the government has shut the main road linking Port Blair to the northern end of the archipelago as it abuts the protected territory of the indigenous Jarawa tribe.

Last year, according to official figures, the islands saw 94,000 Indian visitors, mainly government employees on leave allowance, and just 4,200 foreign tourists, the mostly backpackers.

That demographic must change if the Andamans are to prosper, developers and officials said, as backpackers, or so the argument goes, put far fewer dollars than wealthier tourists into the pockets of locals, while their aggressive pursuit of some untouched paradise puts the entire ecology at risk.

"Low-value tourists take away rather than contribute to the islands, and that's not the direction the administration wants to go forward with. It wants premium, high-value tourists," said Barefoot's Ashish Gupta.

The Maldives, the exotic island nation southwest of Sri Lanka, have been successfully marketed along these lines as a luxury destination.

But while paying lip-service to the need to preserve the Andaman ecosystem, officials are enthusiastically embracing a future tourism boom.

The Andamans' secretary for tourism and tribal areas, Anbarasu, who goes by one name, in an interview with AFP rattled off a list of goals for the islands that could raise the hackles of ecologists.

Plans are afoot, he said, to introduce jet skiing and parasailing, develop beaches used by nesting leatherback turtles, relax Indian law to allow for development within 50 metres of the sea instead of the current 200 metres, set up tree-top cottages in protected forests, and launch water safaris.

"The day is not too far in which we'll get the green light from the government for this," Anbarasu said.

Critics say Indian authorities, business leaders and Thai diplomats are pushing to turn the Andamans into another Phuket, prompting the signing last year of a sister cities agreement between the Thai island and Port Blair.

But environmentalists wince at the prospect of Phuket's sleazy bars and massive tourist intake being replicated in the Andamans.

"I am not against tourism, but I have a problem with uncontrolled tourism, and the administration is not ready to handle that," said Harry Andrews, who heads the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET).

"It really can have a negative impact."

ANET has submitted a draft plan urging restricted access to the Andamans by keeping charters to a minimum and focusing on sustainable high-end tourism.

But PB Air is seeking to expand beyond charters, to as many as three scheduled flights per week from Bangkok on a 50-seat Embraer Jet 145 aircraft.

Until now, the islands have been accessible only from Madras and Calcutta, via expensive domestic flights or cheap but gruelling four-day cargo boat rides.

"This is a foot in the door, and when we get our permit it will only be a matter of time before the Indian government approves scheduled flights," said PB Air president Jothin Pamon-Montri.

On formerly pristine Havelock island, the strains of development are already showing. Ramshackle bamboo and concrete huts have been erected just 20 metres from the high tide line, and construction crews are busy sealing more roads.

"The Andamans is on a cusp, just waiting to dive into tourism, but it's not really sure how to go about it," said Lynda Jacob, who with her Indian husband manages the eco-minded Wild Orchid resort.

"They have great development potential. The question is, who is going to do it and do it the right way?"

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