‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,…’ (Look at Andaman which is beautiful,..) goes a Tamil song from the film ‘Andaman Kaadhali’ (Andaman lover)! The film featuring Shivaji Ganesan and Sujatha was released way back in 1978 and if my memory serves me right, did well at the box office! The song and the film I would reckon, were my first introductions outside of text books to the beautiful group of islands located east of the Indian coast in the Bay of Bengal. It’s a pity that it took 40 years since then to make a visit to Andaman, a few aborted trips for business notwithstanding!
I guess that Andaman hit the Indian tourists’ radar 5/6 years ago when it recovered from the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. Though Port Blair itself was not affected so much, parts of the Nicobar Islands, south of Andaman like Car Nicobar,… got battered badly. Today, tourism plays a major role in keeping the wheels of the Union Territory moving. Having spent a week there in the mid of May this year, I was keen to capture and record my impressions through this post.
- First up, what strikes as a visitor in Port Blair and the many places that are part of the tourism circuit like Havelock, Ross Island,… is the cleanliness. One doesn’t get to see garbage littered around and I presume this was the situation even before Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign.
- Having said that, trails of the cleanliness Abhiyan are felt everywhere as you see dust bins branded SBA prominently placed in areas where tourists visit even if they are remote parts of distant islands. This is commendable. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has hope.
- Guides, car drivers and all make it a point to point out that crime rate is almost “0” in Andaman and that the place is completely safe for locals and tourists alike. I must add here that in the whole trip we didn’t spot any beggars or touts who chase tourists as in some of the other parts of the country.
- Administration of Andaman, being a Union territory comes under the auspices of the Lieutenant Governor. And funds wise, supported by the Union Government. People seem to be happy with this arrangement without being under the mercy of political parties for local administration. However, who’s in the centre and its blessings have a direct impact in terms of funds allocation and development projects. With roughly 300 Cr income and 3000 Cr expenditure per annum, dependence on the Centre is very high for keeping the wheels moving.
- Andaman provides a lot of connection historically to the Independence movement. Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail is a must visit for tourists today. It stands as a grim reminder of the struggles and pains freedom fighters had to go through under the British. The Light and Sound show at the Jail provides the ghastly details of the inhuman treatment of the prisoners by the British. The voice of the late actor Om Puri as the narrator is moving. A walk through the corridors of the jail certainly chokes you with emotion. Among the many who bore the brunt of the cruelty, was Veer Savarkar, the controversial freedom fighter from Maharashtra. The NDA Government under Vajpayee did its bit to honour him by naming the Port Blair Airport after Veer Savarkar in 2002.
- Surprisingly, we hadn’t learnt about Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail in history books while growing up. Not sure if it is a part now! So, my first introduction to Kala Pani was through Priyadarshan’s Malayalam film Kala Pani, way back in 1996. I am convinced that films have done a far better job in teaching history than text books to many of us!
- While on historical connection, a 10 minute boat ride from Port Blair takes you to a small island called Ross Island. The British occupied and developed it as their base for stay. Ross Island today has been handed over to the Indian Navy which is maintaining the same. The island has remnants of the British rule by way of old but dilapidated structures and gives a peek into the luxurious British lifestyle which they enjoyed while thumbing down the locals. The Light and Sound show at the island incidentally directed by the Southern Actress Revathi and sound designed by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty is impressive and provides the historical context. Ross Island can be developed into a much better place of tourism interest. It looks neglected with hardly any upgradation or investment in the recent years.
- Prominent in the tourist circuit today in Andaman is an Island called Havelock which you reach through a 2 hour cruise on high sea that operates regularly. They say that Havelock is becoming the Goa of Andaman! The beaches in Havelock like the Radha Nagar beach, Elephant Beach, Kalapathar Beach,… are all pristine with white sand and turquoise blue water. The beaches are neat and clean unlike Goa. People flock Havelock today for ticking one of their Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara bucket list. Meaning for their Scuba diving, Snorkelling, Jet Skiing and other water sports experiences! We too tried our hands or rather fins at Scuba diving and the experience was awesome though there was no Katrina Kaif around to train us! But the whole diving experience was fantastic. The trainers were professional and ensured that we had a memorable experience.
- Havelock is laid back, has a small town feel with most restaurants resembling beach side shacks. It seems that Havelock used to be very popular among foreigners particularly, Israelis. I am told that with the increase in the arrival of Indian travellers now, the foreign tourists are on the wane. It is not difficult to fathom why.
- Baratang Island is another tourist attraction in Andaman. The limestone caves supposedly formed over millions of years are visually spectacular. I would say that the saying – “Life isn’t just about the destination but about the journey too” fits this place very well. The travel to Baratang is a full day trip where you first travel 100 kms by road from Port Blair to reach the Middle Strait Boat jetty. And the interesting part is, a good 50 Km drive is through reserved forest area where you are allowed to drive only in security protected convoys which leave in 3 or 4 fixed time slots every day. The Jirkatang check post is where you wait till the convoy is allowed to proceed at the appointed time. The forest area is even today inhabited by aboriginal tribes called the Jarawas. You can spot them on the way at times as we did. Photography or video shooting are strictly prohibited in this area. We were told that the Jarawas changed their approach towards other people around the late 80’s but before that the travel was not so safe. We could see that the administration has been taking a lot of steps to mainstream them over a period of years. We could see schools set up for them and so are clinics. Security guards patrol the area regularly. From the Middle Strait boat jetty you are off- loaded into a huge boat which takes you to Baratang jetty. From Baratang jetty, again you have to get into smaller speed boats in groups of 10 people for a 45 min. ride which is extremely scenic, the last 10 minutes of which is through dense mangroves. From where you alight, you need to walk a good 15 mins walk through scenic green fields to reach the limestone caves. At the end of the day, as you return, you feel very tired as the 100 Kms road from Port Blair to the Jetty is bad and uneven. As a place of reasonable tourist interest, I hope the administration fixes this ASAP.
- I must add here that the roads within the Port Blair town, Havelock,… are very good and well maintained.
- Since Port Blair is connected to other islands like Havelock, Ross Island, Neil Island, The Long Island,… mainly through waterways, the boat jetties play a crucial role. Here, I must say that the jetties today are not equipped so well to handle the inflow of traffic. There is chaos and Indians being horrible travellers do their bit only to add to the chaos.
- The whole of Andaman suffers from poor connectivity. The locals crib that they have still to do with 2G while other parts of India are enjoying 4G. Due to limited bandwidth available data uploads and downloads are possible only with Wi-Fi which is also slow. Work is in progress for underground sea cabling from Chennai to Port Blair which will improve connectivity significantly. This may be 3 / 4 years away from now.
- Was happy to see the local CBSE school in Port Blair display a signboard of being part of Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission program and as part of that, it was an “Atal Tinkering Lab”!
- Big hotel groups are yet to make significant investments in Andaman. Tatas have made the 1st move with a premium Taj Exotica property at the Radha Nagar beach in Havelock which opened very recently. This is under PPP (Public and Private Participation) model which I think is the way to go. One of the constraints for private investments I understand today, are the environmental clearances which I guess is a touchy issue not just in Andaman!
- Once you arrive in Port Blair and wade through different tourist spots, it is clear that Andaman is now a hot spot for Honeymooners. Young couples lost in their own company, girl’s hands clad in designer mehendi and weighed down by rows of bangles (chooda) are a common sight and give credence to my premise.
- It is obviously clear that if the last mile connectivity infrastructure like the Airport, Broadband, highways connecting major towns, infrastructure at Jetties,… are improved, Andaman will lure tourists by the droves. Not that it doesn’t, today. But traffic can multiply and just by tourism alone I think it can stand on its own feet without Centre’s subsidy.
- The Port Blair airport itself is just a functional one and for a tourist destination needs an upgrade badly.
- I do get a feeling that, may be the administration or the concerned administrators don’t want to go the whole hog for fear of losing Andaman’s identity and rampant commercialisation. Look at what has happened to the popular hill stations in India which all have got savaged by explosion of tourism!
Overall Andaman is idyllic, beautiful and is a must visit. Incidentally I came to know that the opening shots of the song ‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,… which I have referred to in the beginning of this post was shot at the Megapode Resort in Port Blair where we also stayed!!!