31 March 2007
By Syed Liyakhat
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are still seen as tourist havens, even after being ravaged by the tsunami in December 2004. The tourism policy of Andaman and Nicobar Island 2003 listed its objectives as large-scale, resource-intensive tourism, opening more islands for tourism, attracting private investment for high-end eco-tourist resorts and obtaining relaxation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules. The model is still followed, with minor modifications, after the December 2004 disaster.
The question, however, is: can islands like the Andamans, vulnerable to tsunamis and other natural disasters, depend exclusively on tourism? In 1996, the Commission on Sustainable Development warned small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific about the perils of over-reliance on tourism. Their warnings ring true for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well.
But the island’s administration continues to milk dry the tourism cow. Of course, post-tsunami there were neither tour operators nor tourists. Souvenir, handicraft and small hotel businesses—the mainstays of an island economy dependant on tourism—were destroyed.
Take Murugan’s experience for instance. The tides devastated his hotel and house in Wandoor, a south Andaman island. The family of six adults and a child got refuge in a temporary shelter. The roadside coffee shop they built fetched them a pittance. “Only revival of tourism could save our living,’’ were Murugan’s mother’s words back then. Tourism had admittedly become important for local communities. But Murugan’s story also holds another lesson: in islands prone to natural disasters, the vulnerability of the tourism economy is several fold higher.
This is a lesson that’s not yet been learnt. “The hotels here violate CRZ rules. It is only in some cases in Havelock that locally available materials have been used,’’ says Samir Acharya of the Port Blair-based Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE).
Of course there is a master plan for the islands that speaks of enabling environmentally sustainable tourism. But it needs closer scrutiny. Consider one proposed by the Union ministry of tourism in association with the World Tourism Organisation. It envisages lowering the limits of coastal development prohibition zones in areas earmarked for development for tourism. The threshold will be down to 50 m behind the high-tide line (HTL) if this UN Environment Programme funded plan gets underway. It is currently 200 m behind HTL. The plan also calls for de-reserving forest lands in areas marked for tourism.
All this contravenes the Supreme Court order of 2002 directing that tourism be low impact and sensitive to the ecological context of the islands. This master plan was, of course proposed before the tsunami, but continues to remain on the anvil. Plans to link Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with Phuket in Thailand is also on the anvil. This, despite the fact that tourism development in Phuket has cost the country its reefs, forests and subsistence agriculture dearly.
Various tourism development plans for Andamans dating to the pre-tsunami days stress the need to improve air connectivity. Experiences from across the world have, however, shown that contrary to boosting the tourism industry, over-connectivity has deepened the tourism crisis during natural disasters and contributed to the rapid downfall of tourism dependant economies.
Post-tsunami, there is a sense of urgency to continue what was planned for the islands before the catastrophe. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs prepared a background note on developmental activities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Among its objectives is: “Promotion of resorts preferably by private sector.” It recommends that more islands with tourism potential need to be opened for investment by the private sector.
Even as the islands struggle to recover from the devastation wrought by tsunami, the administration has selected 50 sites on 15 islands to set up “eco-friendly” hotels and resorts.
SANE says these plans violate CRZ rules on Havelock and other islands. It has recommended banning backpackers during the revival stage.
The tsunami showed how catastrophic the impacts of unplanned and unregulated development could be. But the lesson, obviously, has not yet been learnt.