Paradise discovered

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Tourists at North Bay, off Port Blair. -

Tourists at North Bay, off Port Blair. -

A tourist boom is on in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands thanks to a government drive to showcase them.

Tourists at North

STANDING on the beach, Yevgeniya watches wide-eyed as Vijayakumari, a seven-year-old elephant, hauls logs of wood up a slope and on to a platform from where they are rolled down. The young Ukranian had come on a tour of the island archipelago with her husband Indranil Chaudhury from Kolkata. And the deserted beachfront of Havelock Island, where young elephants are being trained by mahouts in logging operations, provides just the right kind of entertainment.

The spotlessly clean beach of Havelock Island, about two hours ferry ride from Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is just one among the bouquet of beaches that the archipelago offers tourists. The dense tropical forests are an added attraction. Take a turn in the beach head, and another island with thick forest cover the John Lawrence Island with a national park to boot looms into view. We have been to Goa. It is artificial. I have been to New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, the United States and Malaysia. But this place is just great, said Indranil.

Cut to the awesome Cellular Jail in Port Blair, where Indian freedom fighters were exiled for life by the British colonial rulers. Another young couple, Pugazhendi and his wife Sathyapriya, from Salem in Tamil Nadu, are intently gazing at the gallery of pictures of freedom fighters. The couple has a special reason to visit the historic jail for the second time. Sathyapriyas grandfather Velumani was a member of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose at Rangoon. When I came here last time, it brought tears to my eyes. I could imagine the tremendous hardship and torture that our freedom-fighters endured to win the countrys freedom. All of us should visit the Cellular Jail at least once in our life, said Sathyapriya. We visited Wandoor beach, Corbyns Cove, the limestone caves, the mud volcano, the mangroves and the coral reefs. We travelled by ship, dinghy, cab and so on. Each was a different experience. A superb experience.

A tourist boom is under way in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with Port Blair as the fulcrum. Tourists are arriving in droves at Port Blair and travelling out to the various places of interest in the islands. Manufacturing companies are also turning to Port Blair or Havelock Island to hold their annual conferences. The tourists are of different class backgrounds factory workers, clerical staff, journalists and so on. Several are second-time visitors and want to come again. Such is the magnetic pull of the islands with historical sites, beautiful beaches, thick forests, hill tops and nature trails. There are now 14 flights a day to Port Blair from Chennai and Kolkata, up from four a day in 2004.

Tourists from northern India, especially, increasingly prefer the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the traditional tourist centres. A captain in the Indian Army, posted at Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, observed that beaches in the island were peaceful and ideal for relaxing. A restaurateur in Port Blair is puzzled about the increasing tourist attraction of the islands. Earlier, we used to get tourists from the mainland only from October to December. But now, they come all the 12 months of the year, he said.

One reason could be the campaigns by the Directorate of Tourism of the Union Territory. Its brochures contain all the basic information that a tourist needs flight and ship connections to Port Blair, ferry services to the outlying islands, private and government-run resorts and hotels. However, a major reason for the tourist influx is that public sector undertakings have announced that their employees can avail themselves of leave travel concessions to fly to Port Blair. Otherwise, leave travel concessions can be availed of only for travel by train.

For the fabulous variety that is offered to tourists, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are unmatched. Ross Island with its treasure of ruins, where the British rulers led luxurious lives facilitated by the labour of prisoners from the Cellular Jail; Viper Island, with its tall, domed gallows where Sher Ali, who killed Lord Mayo, the then Viceroy of India, with a barbers knife, was hanged; Havelock Island with its serene beaches, dense tropical forests, a camp for training elephants, and resorts; the equally beautiful but smaller Neil Island with a couple of resorts; Baratang Island with a cave of luminous limestone formations that sprout from the ground, erupt from the sides and hang from the roof like chandeliers, and a mini-volcano that spews mud; Barren Island with an active volcano; Mount Harriet with forests, jails and a splendid view of the sea and the islands around; the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Park comprising 15 islands including Red Ski and Jolly Buoy, with facilities for snorkelling and scuba diving, and glass-bottomed boats for viewing the marine life; beaches such as Corbyns Cove and Cinque Island; mangrove forests and coral reefs. For those interested in diving, Cinque Island, Fish Rock, Corruption Rock, Rutland Island and Bala Reef provide entertainment. At the centre of it all is Port Blair, a clean little town dotted with beaches, museums, memorials, jetties and wharfs from where one can gaze at the bobbing ships, and ferries..

Lt. Gen. (retired) Bhopinder Singh, Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands said: My focus is on making my countrymen visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and bridge the geographical gulf between the mainland and these islands. I want to create an infrastructure whereby middle-class tourists can visit our islands, appreciate their beauty and realise that they are not kala pani [dreaded black waters] any more but the most beautiful paradise.

Mohamed H. Jadwet, president, Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Port Blair, said: Tourism has a huge potential in Andaman and Nicobar Islands if the government gets its policy right. We have a massive geographical advantage. But we have not made use of it for the past 50 years. Port Blair is close to Bangkok (about an hour by flight), Phuket (45 minutes flight) and Singapore (two hours flight). All these places are getting tourists in hordes.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are situated in an arc on the east of the mainland. They consist of 572 islands, islets and rock formations in the southeast part of the Bay of Bengal. They stretch over a distance of 800 km from north to south and have a geographical area of about 8,250 sq. km. About 36 of the islands are inhabited. About 86 per cent of the islands area is covered by dense tropical forests.

At the elephant

The archipelago is divided into two groups the Andaman islands in the north and the Nicobar islands in the south. The two are separated by what is called the Ten Degree Channel. It is a misnomer because the channel is 145 kilometres wide and looks like a sea. The islands are divided into three administrative districts: South Andaman; Nicobar; and North and Middle Andaman. Port Blair is the capital. The total population in these districts, according to the 2001 Census, is 3,56,152. The population of Port Blair is more than one lakh.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands constitute a Union Territory and come under the Centres direct administrative control. It has no Legislative Assembly. A Lok Sabha member represents its people in Parliament. The islands are run by a Pradesh Council which consists of the Administrator (the Lieutenant Governor), who is its ex-officio chairman, the Lok Sabha member, the chairman of the Port Blair Municipal Board and those elected from among the members of the Port Blair Municipal Board, panchayat pradhans and tribal captains of Nicobars.

Six aboriginal tribes live in these islands. In the Andaman group of islands live four tribes the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onges and the Sentinelese, all belonging to the Negrito stock. In the Nicobar group of islands live the Nicobarese and the Shompens, who belong to the Mongoloid stock. Other than Nicobarese, the five other tribes of the islands are hunter-gatherers. The Nicobarese live in the Car Nicobar Island and have entered mainstream society. Many are employed in the administration.

Only about 42 members of the Great Andamanese tribe survive today and they live on Strait Island. About 300 Jarawas are confined to a forest reserve in the South Andaman and Middle Andaman islands. The Jarawas were hostile to outsiders until about a decade ago. About 150 Shompens live in the Great Nicobar Island and about 150 Onges live in the Little Andaman Island. The population of the Sentinelese, who reside in the North Sentinelese Island, is estimated at a little over 100.

In his paper presented at a national seminar organised by the Madras Chapter of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies in Madras (now Chennai) in November 1990, Lt. Gen. (retired) Ranjit Singh Dyal, the then Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, had this to say: Tourism and fisheries are to my mind the only two sectors in which there is a tremendous scope for development without harming the ecology and environment of these islands. With adequate financial support and administrative clearance from the Ministries concerned, a lot can be done in these two fields which will soon make these islands not only economically self-supporting but also an economic asset to the rest of the country.

The situation is the same even today: tourism and fisheries continue to be the two sectors that can generate revenue and employment. About 90 per cent of these islands budget comes from the Centre. Much of the remaining revenue comes from timber. The Supreme Courts ruling in the early 1990s banning the felling of trees on the islands was a big blow to the economy of the islands. There is no major scope for an alternative economic activity in the islands, said Jadwet.

Tourism began in Port Blair in the late 1970s with the opening of a hotel called Andaman Beach Resort by the Travel Corporation of India Limited. Jadwets family set up the Bay Island hotel, which was later sold off to the Welcomgroup. In the 1980s and 1990s, more hotels came up in Port Blair. Soon Havelock Island came under the ken of builders of beachside resorts.

For about 20 years, until 2004, tourism grew at a slow pace. It was limited to lower- and middle-class and backpack tourists. It was not high-volume tourism, Jadwet said. About one lakh tourists visited the islands in a year and there were only four flights a day to Port Blair two from Chennai and two from Kolkata. The tsunami of December 26, 2004, which devastated several islands of the archipelago, including the inhabited islands, was a blow to the fledgling tourism. About 5,000 tourists were in Port Blair on that fateful day. We went through hell the year after, said Jadwet. Business collapsed. Fishing suffered, since fishermen had lost their boats. Agriculture also suffered. Thousands of coconut trees perished in the flooding caused by the tsunami. Besides, only 30,000 tourists visited the islands in 2005.

Today, its economy is on the road to recovery. The islands administration has provided adequate relief to farmers, fishermen and coconut plantation owners. Snug houses are being built for those who lost their homes to the tsunami.

Tourism is back on its legs. The advertisement campaign has proved effective. Commenting on public sector units new move to encourage their employees to visit the islands, Jadwet said such visitors did not spend much during their visits. Most of them did not stay in organised hotels, he said. We must go for lesser number of people who can pay more. We must build good, high-value resorts. We must have connectivity to Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Then we can change the profile of the tourists visiting our islands, he said.

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