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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 11:09 GMT
Tourists flow into Andaman islands

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Tourists on the beach on Havelock Island
Tourists are once again flocking to the Andamans' pristine beaches

Nearly a year after the tsunami, Calcutta sales executive Shouvik Ganguly found courage, time - and air tickets - to bring his family on holiday to the Andamans.

"We have been to so many coastal regions but this is a dream. Everything is so virgin and unpolluted here," says Mr Ganguly, as he prepares to fly back to Calcutta.

His wife Babita says it is not only the Andamans' pristine beaches and corals - or the trip to the Barren islands, home to India's only active volcano - that made her trip "so fulfilling".

"It is also necessary that we take our children to monuments like the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, where thousands of our freedom fighters were imprisoned during British rule.

"A visit here reminds us how much they sacrificed for us to be free," says Babita.

It is money well spent and so good a destination to de-stress
Prashant Jha, tourist

The airfare to the Andamans costs an Indian tourist more than to Thailand or Singapore.

"But we pay much less for water sports like scuba diving or food or travel within the islands," says another visitor, Prashant Jha, from the Indian state of Bihar.

"And the experience is simply great. It is money well spent and so good a destination to de-stress."

Holiday rush

From all across the Indian mainland, tourists are pouring into the Andamans.

The curiosity generated by the tsunami is getting the better of the fear
Rana Mathew,
tourism official

"Hundreds of businesspeople and professionals, even middle class Indians, are rushing to the Andamans for a holiday with a difference," says local tourism official, Rana Mathew.

"The curiosity generated by the tsunami is getting the better of the fear."

Mr Mathew said that before the tsunami Bengalis made up the bulk of domestic tourists coming to the islands but people from southern India have exceeded them so far this year.

In winter, though, the Bengalis, who make up the bulk of India's domestic tourists, are coming in droves. So are tourists from up north.

Hotels and flights are fully booked for the next two months.

In the early 1990s, the Andamans used to get around 10,000 to 12,000 tourists a year.

By 2000 tourist traffic had grown 10-fold.

Andaman Islands
There is a need for better boat connections between the islands

But after the tsunami the monthly average fell to about 500.

Now the federal government is encouraging its employees to travel to the islands on holiday and offering them free air fares.

Since September, tourist traffic is almost back to pre-tsunami levels.

"We expect it to peak during Christmas. Even the number of foreign tourists is rising sharply," says Rana Mathew.

The Andamans tourism department has planned a 17-day island festival beginning 30 December that will bring in Bollywood personalities, poets and cultural troupes from all over India.

"The festival will help our islanders break free of the psychological trauma of the tsunami," says Mr Mathew.

High-end market

But he says the islands need to improve their infrastructure like inter-island shipping and better hotels and connections to the mainland to exploit their tourism potential.

New cottages built by Andamans tourism
Travel companies are investing in new resorts

Even foreign tour and travel companies have begun investing in resorts here.

Sri Lanka's top hospitality chain, Atkins Spence, has tied up with the Andamans' Barefoot group to develop a resort in Havelock island and a few more elsewhere.

"We hope they get us high-value niche tourists by developing a Sri Lanka-Maldives-Andamans circuit that they are planning to do," says Barefoot's Samit Sahni.

The plan also finds favour with environmentalists.

"We need to get tourists who value nature and local sensibilities and will not disturb our ecology," says Reshmi Nair, spokesperson for the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (Sane).

More tourism means greater demands for the island's handicrafts and pearls.

The Andamans are also becoming an exotic location for the shooting of Hindi, Bengali and Tamil-language films.

"This should mean jobs for our people in smaller support roles. These three languages and English are extensively spoken here and there's a strong multi-cultural stage tradition," says cultural representative Gitanjali Rao.

"We need to figure in the mainland's imagination in a big way."

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