Subsidised Tourism Worsens Andamans' Woes
By Pankaj Sekhsaria*
By Pankaj Sekhsaria*
PORT BLAIR, Dec 6 (IPS/IFEJ) - Tourism, promoted as a major economic activity and employment generator in India’s far-flung Andaman Islands, has run into opposition lately. Concerns are being raised, ironically, by local residents and tour operators who are supposed to be the prime beneficiaries.
A chain of about 550 islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is clothed in thick rainforests and home to excellent beaches and coral reefs. Agriculture, forestry and government jobs have traditionally been the mainstay for the people of this centrally-administered territory that is closer to Thailand, Burma and Indonesia than the Indian mainland.
But increased awareness of the need to protect forests, dwindling agricultural returns and a continued growth in the population, now at 356,000, has led the government to promote tourism as one of the key areas for economic growth and employment on the islands.
Government figures clearly indicate the trend. An estimated 100,000 visitors came to the islands in 2004. The figure was roughly the same for the year 2006 and is expected to cross 150,000 for 2007. While this might not seem like a big jump, the significance becomes obvious when one factors in the tourist numbers for the year 2005. Fewer than 50,000 visited in 2005, in the immediate aftermath of the Dec.26, 2004 earthquake and the tsunami that followed.
The damage to infrastructure and, more importantly, the uncertainty that followed, hit the islands’ fledgling tourism industry hard. Tourist arrivals dropped dramatically prompting the launch of ‘Vitamin Sea’, a tourism promotion campaign for the islands.
In a related move the central government also extended its Leave Travel Concession (LTC) programme to a section of its employees, allowing them free air travel if they chose to holiday on the islands. For nearly two years now employees from the government-owned Steel Authority of India’s units in Bhilai, Bokaro, Durgapur and Rourkela (small towns in central and eastern India) have constituted the bulk of the tourists visiting the islands.
While this might sound like a welcome trend, the fact that a large chunk of these visitors are low-spending domestic tourists is a matter of some consternation. Increasingly people in Port Blair are complaining that the government policy of promoting tourism, using its own employees, does little good to these tsunami-affected islands, located barely 150 km away from the badly-hit Aceh province on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
Such is the resentment against the policy that World Tourism Day, Sep. 27, saw local tour operators and agencies come out on the streets of Port Blair in protest.
Members of the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industries point out that the LTC tourists visiting the islands not only spend little money but, through bulk bookings offered by travel agents, use up the scarce resources and facilities and crowd out genuine up-market tourists.
In a recent article published in a local newspaper, green campaigner Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, wrote: "Tourism, instead of bringing a boon to the islands, has actually brought a curse on the islanders...the only contribution (of LTC tourists) to the islands is bringing scarcity of water, (cheap)inter-island boat tickets, island-mainland ship tickets and even air-tickets for the localities. What makes it worse and intolerable is that it is totally state-funded.’’
The LTC tourists have sorely strained the resources on the islands. The summer of 2007 saw unprecedented water cuts for residents, with parts of Port Blair receiving water only once in five days, and that too for only a couple of hours. "Due to curtailment of water supply by municipal council," said a notice put up in the state-run Hotel Megapode in Port Blair at the height of the monsoon season in September, "all guests are requested not to waste water and not to wash clothes. Water supply timing: Morning 6 am to 10 am. Evening: 6 pm to 10 pm." Other restaurants and hotels too encourage guests to use water judiciously.
"LTC tourists," says Zubair Ahmed, a journalist working with the local weekly ‘The Light of Andamans’, "are always welcome, if they know in advance what to expect in the islands.LTC tourism is helping the unorganised sector to earn something, but the organised sector is up in arms against it because they are losing their clientele."
Sanjay Ray, a resort owner and an elected representative on Havelock Island, agrees. "No benefit comes to us from the Indian tourist and 80 percent of our benefit comes from foreigners."
Not everyone disagrees with government policy. New Delhi-based tourism expert and researcher Nina Rao, told IPS: "I am surprised at this campaign (World Tourism Day protests). We have always felt that everyone has a right to be a tourist, and this is a democratic right.’’
However, she adds that tourism should stay within carrying capacity limits. ''Today, it is established that the 800 plus million tourists (around the world) are a serious cause of global warming and this affects island people the most.''
While more domestic tourists are being solicited, little attention has been paid to basic details such as infrastructure, waste management or the impact on sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs.
Officials admit privately that the move to boost tourism via the LTC route in the aftermath of the tsunami is backfiring. Evidence of this lies in the fact that the administration recently refused permission to the Indian Railways (the world’s largest employer with 1.6 million workers on its rolls) to include the islands as part of its LTC schemes.
Other tourism promotion moves -- like the 2005 agreement to twin Port Blair with Thailand's Phuket, 500km away -- have been abandoned following protests by academics and activists that this could have negative social and environmental impacts in the Andamans.
For now, what is certain is that domestic tourism in the Andamans appears to have become a classic case of a remedy being worse than the problem.
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ). It replaces the version issued on Nov 28)