*Deepika Sharma, Madhuri Ramesh and ShimulBijoor

Dakshin Foundation, Bengaluru

*Corresponding author: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The ambitious tourism plans and top-down approach of the government to make the Andaman and Nicobar Islands a global destination is side-lining locals.

Global performance of the tourism sector

Over the years, the tourism sector has made its presence felt in the global economy. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTCC) 2017 report, in the past year this sector’s contribution to the global economy was higher than that of others such as manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. The WTTC report also predicts that India will be one of the countries in which the tourism sector grows the fastest. Similarly, the United Nations' World Tourism Barometer Report has listed India as seventh amongst the nations with the highest GDP contributions from the tourism sector.  According to the Indian Ministry of Finance,foreign exchange earnings from tourism contributed revenue of almost Rs 200 crores in the last year alone.  Therefore, it came as no surprise when the Finance Minister announced a 21% hike in the funds allocated to the Ministry of Tourism in this year's national budget while emphasising a holistic approach to the development of this sector. Overall, tourism has the potential to be a powerful driver of economic development in the country.

In the spotlight

At present, the archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) is one of the main regions targeted for intensive tourism development by the central government. Although far away from India's mainland, ANI is well-known for its picture-perfect beaches, rich biodiversity on land and water, and its position in Indian history as a penal colony that housed many significant members of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. International agencies have also played a major role in putting the islands on the tourist map:for example, in 1999 the Royal Greenwich Observatory at London announced that the millennium’s first sunrise would be visible in Katchal, which is part of the Nicobar group. This attracted a lot of media attention andthe government relaxed restrictions to promote this event, although almost all of the Nicobars is a designated tribal reserve.  Similarly, in 2004, the Time magazine declared Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island to be Asia’s most beautiful one andtill date, this remains Havelock’s claim to fame. However, the 2004 tsunami caused a steep decline in tourist numbers. To woo domestic tourists back, the central government initiated various schemes, the main one being the Leave Travel Concession offered to its Grade A and B employees who want to visit ANI.

Now the archipelago is once again in the spotlight because the central government think-tank, the NITI Aayog, haspushed for further relaxation ofrules and regulations to boost the number of foreign tourists and make the islands a favoured destination, comparable to places such as Maldives and Mauritius. There has been a correspondingincrease in heavy financial investment in tourism here. For example, in 2016, under the Swadesh Darshan scheme, the Ministry of Tourism invested about Rs 42 crores to create a coastal circuit between Long, Smith and Ross, Havelock, Baratang islands and Port Blair.  Further, the Sagarmala project of the Ministry of Shipping proposes to invest around Rs 590 crores in Havelock and Neil Islands, as well as in Port Blair. Now management plans drawn up by the Forest Department are also required to have a section on eco-tourism in the protected areas of ANI.

Ground realities

In spite of the central government’s strong support of tourism development, progress on the ground has been very slow and locals have mixed opinions on the subject.In Smith and Ross Islands, the NITI Aayog is promoting construction of a luxury resort and camping site as a part of its holistic tourism development project. These are twin islands connected by a sandbar.A large portion of Smith Island is a reserved forest and a part of it is occupied by refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the Ranchis, a mixed adivasi group from the Chotanagpur region of Bihar. Both communities were settled here in the late 1940s-50s. Ross Island, on the other hand, is uninhabited and was made a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1987.  The lack of basic facilities such as schools, healthcare, drinking water and transportation has forced many families to move out from Smith Island to villages near Diglipur.  Moreover, one can reach these islands only by ferries but these are extremely limited:there is one boat which leaves Smith Island early in the morning and it returns from Diglipur in the afternoon. Moreover, the ferries cannot operate during rough weather, due to safety concerns, butthere are speedboats for tourists that are run by private operators. However,these charge up to Rs 3,500 for a ride and are therefore too expensive for the locals to use.

In the wake of the NITI Aayog's announcements, it is believed thatrealtors from the mainland have begun to purchase large tracts in Smith Island andgovernment officials claim that many of the smaller players are also trying to develop beach resorts in neighbouring areas. Besides, Smith and RossIslands also harbourmarine turtles,which are a protected species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 - this is why one has to get a permit from the Forest Department to visit these islands and visitors are allowed to stay there only till 2 pm. Earlier though, these places were freely accessible to local people. Dinesh (name changed), a school teacher in Diglipur recalled how he and his friends would often celebrate festivals at the lighthouse in Ross Island. But, now they have stopped visiting such places because of the difficulty in getting permits andthey are also reluctant to pay what they consider a high entry fee. However, for the Forest Department, such fees are required to fund the management of protected areas.

Similar stories abound at Rani Jhansi Marine National Park (RJMNP), which is now a popular dive site for tourists. Earlier, it was a significant fishing ground for islanders butaccording to a member of the fishing union in Havelock, the Forest Department began regular patrolling about six years ago and it imposes fines on fishermen if they are seen within the park(althoughtourists can go scuba diving in the same areas). Such unequal access is the result of poor policies because the draft management plan for RJMNP for instance, proposes dividing the waters into different zones to meet a range of requirements:  a protection zone to conserve biodiversity, a tourism zone for boat operations and recreational activities, and a multiple-use zone for other (unspecified) activities. However, the requirements of local fishers have not been considered. Instead, like the larger NITI Aayog vision, the management plan also intends to bring economic development to the local population by focussing on tourism alone.

Residents of both these sites emphasized that there were no public consultations before key decisions were made, such as restriction of fisheries and imposition of fines - they had no opportunity to share their opinions and concerns.  Moreover, asa recent article pointed out,although the government has promised better infrastructure in the islands for many years now, ithas failed to provide basic facilities such as safe transportation by sea, for the islanders. This raises major questions about the latest promise of ‘holistic development by tourism’.

On the other hand, the focus on tourism has provided fringe benefits to some islanders especially those running supporting services and small businesses (such as hotels, and transport services like autos, taxis and boat operations). Several resort owners and dive operators said they preferred to employ only islanders as they are more reliable and likely to stay on for a long period.  Some are even willing to provide training to interested candidates. Take the case of Sarita (name changed), for example - she shifted along with her husband from Wandoor to Havelock because he first found a job in one of the hotels. Sarita did not want to stay alone at home all day so she approached one of the resorts on the island and underwent a training course, after which she found employment in their spa. However, a member of the Havelock Gram Sabha remarked that while tourism-related jobs offer higher pay, they have also resulted in the shortage of labour for other projects at Havelock, such as construction work and garbage collection.

Sustainability of tourism sector

The tourism sector in ANI has expanded greatly over the years but so far, the way these projects have been planned and implemented hasresulted in side-lining the welfare of most locals as well as their rights over resources. This is often justified as an effort to create space for the development of tourism and conservation but the momentum of such projectscan be sustained only with the participation of the islanders. Moreover, given the high rate of literacy here (over 80% according to the last census), there is enormous scope for capacity building and work participation.

Consider an example from another developing country - in Thailand, Mae Kampong village is a popular tourist destination that is co-managed by the community and multiple agencies. In a study published in 2015, researchers listed some of the factors that had contributed to this successful working model. They found that community members have a cooperative that raises funds through tourism and invests it in the development, social welfare and conservation of forests in the village.The government and NGOs also contribute to these funds. The village head oversees expenditures and acts as a bridge between the community members and other institutions, whilethe latter are responsible for building up the skills of the community. In addition, the latter also help in promoting tourism at national and international scales.Similar long-term planning, with the combined efforts of local communities,government agencies and NGOs in ANI, can ensure thattourism brings in some measure of genuine development for the islanders.