By Anurag Dey
Port Blair: Endowed with picturesque landscapes, sterling beaches and nature’s generous gifts, the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago has sadly failed to realise its full potential as a tourism hub for India due to infrastructural inadequacies, lack of free enterprise and the fear psychosis of natural calamities. The group of 572 emerald islands in the Bay of Bengal, out of which only 36 are inhabited, is surely waiting to be discovered.
With its exotic looking beaches and pristine islands having equally exotic names, wonderful opportunities for adventure sports like snorkeling and sea-walking and a vast succulent array of seafood delicacies that come cheaper than the vegetables brought from the mainland, the Andamans can compare with many other dream tourist destinations across the globe.
One can laze around the enticing beaches at Havelock Islands, or Ross and Smith – the twin islands joined by a bewitching sandbar. Sea-bathing and sun-basking at the Corbyn’s Cove beach helps one to unwind and de-stress while the Hilltop Gallows on Viper Island and Port Blair’s Cellular Jail are sure to overwhelm the visitors with a sense of patriotism as the clock ticks back to the days of India’s freedom struggle.
Before the infamous Cellular Jail came up in 1906, Viper Island was the jail house for convicts and freedom fighters of 1857, many of whom were sent to the gallows at the hilltop. The now-dilapidated red building stands testimony to the unbearable tortures and hardships inflicted by the British on the freedom fighters.
But located in Zone V, the highest seismic zone, the islands are highly prone to quakes and frequent cyclones. The scars of the devastating 2004 Tsunami – which ravaged the economy and the population, with the unofficial death toll estimated at about 7,000 – are still fresh.
“Being prone to devastating cyclones, the people have developed a fear psychology. They opt for the safety of government jobs. We lack the free spirit of enterprise here. Industries are very small and the opportunities are therefore very limited,” said the union territory’s Lieutenant Governor, Lt. General (retd) A.K. Singh.
According to official estimates, the flow of tourists doubled to nearly 300,000 in 2012 from 130,000 in 2008-09. Less than 10 percent were foreign visitors, officials said. The tourism department however feels that the growth rate of even domestic tourists should have been much higher, considering attractions like the Radha Nagar beach – chosen as Asia’s best in 2004.
“The tourist inflow has been growing, but not at the desired rate. The growth can be far more if we can improve the infrastructure, including connectivity and hospitality. Higher flight rates act as a hindrance,” Andaman Tourism Department Director P. Viswakannan told this visiting IANS correspondent.
Other stakeholders squarely blamed the lack of infrastructure and civic maintenance, especially on the cleanliness front, the bane of Indian tourist spots.
“The region’s infrastructural deficiency makes it entirely dependent on the mainland. We have so few educational institutions that people here are not adequately qualified,” said Jesu Manick of the Strategic Urban Rural Advancement Backing Institute (SURABI), an NGO that imparts industrial and other training to people.
Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry president G Bhasker pointed to other shortcomings. “We have so much potential in the fishing sector but we are not making much progress. Electronic communication is poor, there is lack of power, and transport facilities are inadequate. Once these problems are sorted out, there won’t be any dearth of enterprise,” said Bhasker.
With its stress on eco-tourism and adventure tourism, the administration is involving self-help groups (SHGs) and ensuring increased private participation to better the infrastructure. The focus is on fisheries and tourism – the two sectors which form the backbone of the economy.
Viswakannan said the administration was working on creating more projects under the public-private partnership model.
“The administration has been working on developing the islands as a major tourism hub, but we also need increased private participation,” he added.
Connectivity is another grey area. Despite its international tag, the Port Blair airport currently gets no overseas flights.
Work is on to develop night landing facilities and is expected to be completed within six months. The administration hopes the airport will at least get a few stopovers of international flights.
On the security front, a host of safety guidelines, including setting up SOS kiosks and an enforcement agency to ensure the safety of tourists, have been chalked out. The SOS kiosks will be set up at the jetties across the islands, while the enforcement agency comprising police and tourism department officials will ensure tour operators comply with the prescribed safety guidelines.