Forget history, think fun?
In the struggle to strike a balance between conservation and development, the catchphrase for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is `high value, low volume', writes SURESH NAMBATH.
The Cellular Jail, Port blair.
ARE the Andaman and Nicobar Islands readying for an image makeover? From selling the Cellular Jail to Indians, there seems to be a slow shift toward marketing the beaches to foreigners. In the struggle to strike a balance between ecology and tourism, conservation and development, the catchphrase for the island administration is "high value, low volume". As high-spending foreigners are more at home in the Andamans than low-income Indians on leave travel concessions, trying out sea rallies, game fishing and scuba diving have outdone visiting museums, monuments and art galleries on the list of favoured activities.
Although the Cellular Jail still hogs prime space in tourist literature, and patriotism runs high in the son at lumiere show, the dominant image of the Andamans is now of beaches and islands, sea bathing and sun basking. "Kalapani", which evokes memories of the penal settlement, appears to be completely at odds with the celebration of life that the islands have come to symbolise. The Andaman and Nicobar islands, spread over 8,249 square kilometres, are closer to South-East Asia than to the rest of India. Kolkata is 1,255 km away, Vishakapatnam, 1,200 km, and Chennai, 1,190 km. Not surprisingly, South-East Asia is the preferred route for attracting foreign tourists. The twinning of Port Blair with Phuket in Thailand is expected to bring for the Andamans the benefits of the tourism potential of Thailand. The Andaman Sea Rally from Phuket to Port Blair and back, an annual boating event of serious offshore racing coupled with a leisure-filled stay on the islands, captures the spirit of sport and fun-filled sea adventure of the Andamans. There are fears that the Andamans might follow the high-volume tourism model of Phuket that could lead to uncontrolled growth of tourist facilities and, consequently, to environment degradation. But David Ratoliffe of Yindi Thailand of Phuket, one of the organisers, says: "We do not want the islands to be another Phuket. That is a prospect everyone dreads."
The biggest challenge for tourism promoters is just this: encouraging scuba diving and snorkelling without damage to coral reefs, opening up beaches for bathing and basking without a risk of pollution. Those who are supportive of global level tourism projects want a relaxation of coastal regulatory zone laws. With marine life emerging as the biggest attraction to the upmarket tourists, these people feel the Andamans needs to compete with Thailand in terms of tourism infrastructure. At present, there is a woeful lack of good roads and quality transport interlinking the tourist spots spread out in the sea.
When it comes to development projects and star hotels, the Andamans faces the age-old dilemma. None will invest in hotels and infrastructure in the absence of a large number of upmarket tourists. And, the tourists will not turn up in the absence of star hotels and facilities. "A chicken-and-egg situation," says the director of tourism, Akash Mohapatra. However, he sees changes on the horizon. Sooner or later, more islands would have to be opened up. At present the popular destinations include Havelock Island, with its white sand beaches and thick forests, the Cinque islands, joined by a sand bar, which offer opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving, and the Marine National Park, Wandoor. The administration is now working towards the declaration of the islands as a special tourism zone that could do away with some of the restrictions that come in the way of "development". The visits of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Vice-President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, to the islands seemed to have helped matters: there is now a recognition of the special needs of the islands.
Radha Nagar Beach on Havelock Island.
But, according to those in the tourism industry, more must be done. As Manish Seth, General Manager, Bay Island resort in Port Blair, says: "We need a more investor-friendly climate to attract Foreign Direct Investment for development projects." Relevant to this debate is the forest cover in the Andaman and Nicobar islands: 92 per cent. The reserved and protected forests extend over 86 per cent of the islands. Many would term this a blessing. But not everyone. Some in the tourism industry believe that it actually is a curse in disguise. The places that can be developed are at a premium.
Originally a hill range stretching from Myanmar to Indonesia, the islands have long beaches that lie very close to dense forests. Developers of tourism infrastructure are thus in conflict with either the forest protection laws or the coastal regulation rules.
Morever, the Government hands out land for tourism projects only on a 30-year lease. International investors, who want a long-term guarantee, lock for a 99-year lease that will make for viable projects.
During his visit to Andamans last year, Mr. Vajpayee chaired a meeting of the Island Development Authority focussing the discussions on developing tourism infrastructure, giving international status to the airport at Port Blair, and upgrading transhipment facilities at the port. There has been some forward movement since then.
But irrespective of what administration officials say, there will always be a disjointing between the efforts to recreate the history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the attempts to woo upmarket foreign tourists. Besides the Cellular Jail, Ross Island, which was the headquarters of the British settlement, is now being repositioned as a tourist attraction.
Restoration of the ruins is under way. A sound and light show is also part of the plans for the island. However, while those who come to the Andamans for the beaches might visit places of national and historical importance, the islands are best presented to potential tourists as fun and adventure, as beaches and forests. And not as history or as a symbol of nationalism. Not even to Indians.
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