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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January, 2005, 19:30 GMT
Indian islands eye silver lining

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair, Andaman Islands

Within three days of the tsunami hitting India's eastern archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar, thousands of tourists cut short their holidays and returned to the Indian mainland.

Photos courtesy of the Andaman and Nicobar administration
Tourism to the islands had been picking up rapidly
"We were expecting a major boost in tourist arrivals this year. Our bookings were picking up sharply but the tsunami upset it all," says Manish Seth, general manager of the Bay Island Resort.

The exodus was mitigated by the more than 100 journalists from India and abroad who rushed to the Andamans to cover the aftermath of the tsunami. But only slightly.

The Andaman tourism department says at least 3,000 tourists - 90% Indian and the rest foreigners - had to be airlifted to the Indian mainland in panic.

"They cut short their visit and it was a big loss to the industry here," says former parliamentarian Bishnupada Ray.

Tourism in the Andaman and Nicobar islands has picked up in the last 20 years. There were only 10,000 tourists visiting the islands in 1980. In 2003, the number had increased almost tenfold, to 93,000. In 2004, it had been expected to cross the 100,000 mark - and then the tsunami.

"We had a lot of New Year's Eve bookings but they were all cancelled," said Manuel Selvan of Hotel Aparupa, where again the rush of journalists partly made up for the loss of occupancy.

To begin with, a few hundred high-spending tourists will make a difference to the local economy
Samit Sawhny
Tourist operator
A local group, Barefoot, had even started charters from Thailand to bring in tourists from there in big numbers.

Samit Sawhny, who runs Barefoot, says after the "curtain-raiser" in March, when three charters were flown, regular charters were to start in January.

"But it all looks a bit uncertain this season," says Sawhny. "Hopefully, all will be well next year."

If the Barefoot experiment works, more tourist companies may add the Andamans as an additional destination to South-East Asian packages.

"We don't need large volumes. To begin with, a few hundred high-spending tourists will make a difference to the local economy," says Sawhny.

If a domestic tourist spends at least 500 rupees ($11) every day and the foreigner twice as much, on average, the cost of the tsunami can be calculated as at least 20 to 30 million Indian rupees.

This is small by the standards of other mainland states, but big for the fledgling local tourism industry.

Virgin beaches

But while thousands of tourists fled the islands, rattled by the fierce earthquake and the tsunami, and many more cancelled their bookings, nearly 30 young Western backpackers stayed behind at the resorts in the Havelock islands to "enjoy like hell".

"The tsunami did not affect Havelock, so we had a great time. The Havelock beach is a heaven on earth," said Peter Roebuck, an American student.

"I lay on the beach with my boyfriend the whole afternoon for four days, I have never had so much fun," said Sarah Mathieson, also from the US.

Photos courtesy of the Andaman and Nicobar administration
Officials believe exposure will help promote tourism in the long term

These backpackers chased away consulate officials from their countries who came looking for them.

"They told us to get out and leave them in peace," says Sourabh Sen of the US Consulate in Calcutta.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are renowned for serene, virgin beaches and fabulous underwater marine life.

Neil Island and Havelock Island are a paradise for scuba diving, with scores of water sports centres.

Havelock beach has been rated as one of the best in the world by Time magazine.

With nearly 90% of the island forested, the environment is ideal for those seeking a week or two away from the stress and bustle of their daily lives.

But many islands are out of bounds for tourists because they are inhabited by some of the world's most ancient aboriginals.

Our beautiful islands have got massive international exposure and I think tourism may actually begin to pick up after the post-tsunami panic is over
Rana Mathew
PR officer
"Our tourist destinations are intact, none of 10 islands open to the tourists were affected by the tsunami and the earthquake," says Andaman tourism director Kuldeep Singh Gangar.

"The islands just have to rebuild the infrastructure, like the jetties have to be repaired for inter-island sailing. Then tourism may pick up again," says Gangar.

Rana Mathew, the government public relations officer who handled the "media tsunami" with tact and calm, says the tsunami may turn out to be a "silver lining in a dark cloud".

"Never before have so many media people come here at one time - from the West, from South-East Asia, even from China, and obviously from all parts of India," says Mathew.

"There were nearly 150 of them. Our beautiful islands have got massive international exposure and I think tourism may actually begin to pick up after the post-tsunami panic is over."

Photos courtesy of the Andaman and Nicobar administration
Some of the island's beaches are rated as among the best in the world
Former parliamentarian Bishnupada Ray says the government should invest heavily to rebuild the infrastructure.

"Entrepreneurs should be encouraged with loans to provide tourist services. The airfare from Chennai and Calcutta should be subsidised and you will see tourism picking up like hell," says Mr Ray.

He said some cheap airlines should start operating here.

Adds current parliamentarian Manoranjan Bhakta: "Tourism is the industry of the future here."

But for that to happen, his government will have to put in the initial spadework to build up the islands' infrastructure.

The authorities in the islands have announced a reconstruction strategy in which revival of the tourist environment has been given highest priority.

"The administration plans to refocus on the tourism sector, which will drive the economy of the island and will provide employment to the islanders," said Lieutenant Governor Ram Kapse.


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