Eco-tourism destination plans for Andaman Islands

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India aims to promote its remote and unspoilt Andaman Islands as an exclusive high-end eco-tourism destination, partly in a bid to rebuild the islands’ economy after last year’s tsunami.

The Andaman islands, covered in rainforest and palm trees and fringed by coral reefs, were always one of India’s least known tourist destinations, partly because they lie 1,200 km off India’s eastern coast.

The archipelago may have been put on the world map after the Dec. 26 tsunami, but tourists simply stopped coming, scared off by all the negative publicity. Just 3,300 people made it in the first quarter of this year, a drop of more than 90 percent.

The first task is to repair the image of the island chain.

“What we’ve got to do is ensure people start going back,” said Amitabh Kant, joint secretary in Delhi’s department of tourism. “Once they go, they will realise things are absolutely normal as far as the Andaman group of islands is concerned.”

The Andamans escaped relatively unscathed from the tsunami and the magnitude 9.15 quake that triggered it.

Most of the deaths and destruction occurred on the Nicobar islands further south, which are much closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the epicentre of the earthquake.

Kant plans to produce brochures and a CD-ROM to market the islands. Last month, he took a group of leading tour operators from mainland India to the islands.

But in the long term he has more ambitious plans — attracting “high-value, low-volume tourists” while preserving the islands’ unique ecology.

“We must take care that we don’t end up promoting mass tourism,” he said. India needed to learn from mistakes made elsewhere to “ensure you don’t do all the terrible things that have happened in Phuket (in Thailand)”.

He said he wanted to see eco-lodges made out of wood and other local materials rather than bricks and mortar, and to involve the local community in the projects.

Tall Order

In order to prevent the islands being over-run, Kant wants to limit numbers to 5,000 to 6,000 foreign tourists a month.

“The destination is so fabulous and so unique that I don’t think any tourist coming to the Andamans should be spending less than $500 a day,” he said. “But for that to happen you need to create a great experience.”

Kant said he was hoping that the private and public sectors could work together to build the sort of infrastructure the islands would need. He wants to attract good naturalists and guides, and provide luxury yachts to take people around.

Visiting the islands today, it looks like a tall order. There are no world-class hotels on the islands, which are connected by slow and uncomfortable boats.

A beach on Havelock Island was voted Asia’s best in 2004 by Time magazine, but much of the archipelago is off limits to visitors, to protect the primitive tribes who live there.

The coral reefs were among the most pristine and bio-diverse in the world, but December’s earthquake and tsunami caused extensive damage. Kant says the government will not be promoting the islands as a snorkelling or diving destination until a full environmental study has been carried out.