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Monday, 17 November, 2014, 14 : 45 PM [IST]

Domestic Focus: Andamans: A Destination painted Green & Blue

With organised travel players taking keen interest in the destination, the tourism fortunes of Andaman Islands seem to have obtained a better direction and purpose. After visiting the idyllic islands of Port Blair and Havelock on the invitation of MakeMyTrip, P Krishna Kumar details the opportunities and challenges of India’s unexplored tourism treasure house
Andaman is a destination too near, but at the same time too far even for Indian travellers. One would realise the sheer geographical expanse of India and its splendid diversity when he reaches Andaman. Separated from the mainland by a distance of more than 1,500 km, and scattered around the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, Andaman & Nicobar Islands is a group of more than 550 tropical islands, which are part of the mountainous landmass running from Myanmar to the outer reaches of Indonesia. It was a blessing in disguise and a long-cherished dream come true when I received an invitation from MakeMyTrip for a FAM trip to these shimmering emerald islands. The trip, as expected, was educative and captivating as it fulfilled my fascination for both, history and heritage, and also for white sandy beaches and water sports.

The stunning beauty of the jewels of Andaman sea start luring travellers from a height, as the plane starts its descent to Port Blair airport. The green isles with thick vegetation in circles, along the white sandy beaches, with waves gently caressing the shores, is a sight so captivating that passengers onboard kept capturing them with all forms of gadgets – camera, cell phones, and tablets. Quickly, the sea gave way to the thick green mountains. About 90 per cent of the total landmass of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands is forested and protected area. As the plane approached the Veer Savarkar International Airport, a bustling city emerged full throttle out of the woods.  

andamans_2.jpgPort Blair
The capital city of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Port Blair is a bustling commercial hub and the only entry and exit point for travellers. The city is connected with mainland India by both air and sea. Flights connect Port Blair from Kolkata and Chennai, while ships operate between Port Blair and three mainland destinations – Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam. Port Blair is a mini-India in its true sense as the population comprises a cross section of the society. The history of the island is closely intertwined with India’s colonial past and the political struggle for independence. Most of the original inhabitants of the island are descendents of freedom fighters and prisoners from across India, who were deported to the Andamans by British. The notorious deportation to ‘Kaalapani’ is a glowing chapter in the history of India’s freedom struggle. The Ross Island, just a stone’s throw away from Port Blair, the Viper Island, the Chatham Island all are living remnants of this colonial past.

Our tour started from the Ross Island, once an exclusive preserve of the British empire. Spread over an area of almost one sq km, Ross Island is connected by ferry boat from Aberdeen jetty, which also houses a water sports complex. Besides the British colonial remnants, the island has remainders of Japanese occupation of Port Blair during the Second World War. The Japanese occupied the island and built bunkers around it, a few of which still remain. It was the Ross Island that acted as a saviour of Port Blair during the killer tsunami of 2005. Bearing the brunt of the tsunami, today the island looks like a ghost with torn colonial buildings, giant trees growing over the remnants of such structures, an old cemetery, a crumbling British era Presbyterian Church, etc. While the island is a big draw with tourists, it is in shambles and neglect. The Tourism Department of Andamans is currently planning to launch a light-and-sound show in the island. They have roped in popular South Indian actress and director, Revathy for the project.

andamans_3.jpgThe Cellular Jail is another landmark of Port Blair that is part of political heritage of the country. This National Memorial draws many visitors all round the year. The Jail complex was built by the British, close to the Bay between 1896 and 1906. The original complex had seven wings radiating straight from the central tower, of which only three remain today. Declared a National Memorial in 1979, the complex houses a photo gallery of freedom fighters who were prisoners at the Cellular Jail. The light-and-sound show here in the evenings is a packed-house event. 

Port Blair has wonderful beaches and diving spots as well. Corbyn’s Cove is a small, but well-maintained, beach close to the city. The North Bay Island, just north of Port Blair, is a popular diving/snorkelling destination. The famous Lighthouse is located at North Bay. A drive to Chidiyatapu Beach on the southern-most tip of South Andaman is a thrilling experience. Notwithstanding the poor civic amenities at the destination, the place gives a beautiful view of the setting sun on a clear day.

andamans_4.jpgPort Blair presents a neat and tidy look. The tourism infrastructure in the city is fairly developed with proper roads and smooth vehicular traffic. Although reputed hotel brands offering ultra-luxury accommodation are absent at the destination, local hotel brands are well geared to ensure comfortable stay for visitors. However, in their quest to increase their share of the tourism pie, the destination would require a couple of high-end resorts to attract travellers looking for premium stay. Also, the potential in the Cruise Tourism segment is yet to be tapped. In spite of having a great setting for experiential night/dinner cruises, this segment is not adequately explored. The only service available is by a government boat. While one can stay connected with the outside world through cell phones, one will be at the mercy of the limited Wi-Fi facility the hotels provide.

Lt. Gen. (Rtd.) A K Singh, Lt. Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Since the Andamans is pristine yet fragile, we want to focus on the unique brand of tourism that is sustainable and ecologically sensitive. That doesn’t mean we will restrict entry for any particular segment of travellers; we will rather promote the destination for all kinds of travellers. As we open more islands and expand our tourism season, we hope to attract more number of tourists. We have one of the best diving and surfing beaches in the region. We want tourists to take advantage of that.

G Bhasker, President, Andaman Chamber of Commerce & Industry
We have seen major action on the part of the Administration to put in place policy framework for tourism development in the last one year. So many initiatives have been put on fast track. After the government, tourism is the second biggest employer in Andamans. There have been visible changes in the profile of travellers coming to the Island ever since MakeMyTrip started promoting Andamans. 

Mohammed Jadwet, past President, Andaman Chamber of Commerce & Industry
Things have really started moving in the last one year for tourism in the Island, but it is not still at the required pace. MakeMyTrip has helped in bringing middle-class travellers by designing affordable packages. Earlier the bulk of visitors to Andamans were LTC travellers, because of which fares were high. The destination was not benefiting from that segment, as they were not big spenders. 

Mohit Gupta, Chief Business Officer - Holidays, MakeMyTrip
Andaman is among the fastest growing Domestic Tourism destinations in India with an annual growth of 30 per cent year-on-year, and this growth pace is expected to continue in the next few years. It is a focus destination for MakeMyTrip. The destination has witnessed an increase in tourist inflow due to many reasons. Andaman has become an easily accessible destination for travellers with direct flight connectivity from Kolkata, Chennai, and now Bhubaneshwar. The major chunk of travellers include youth (honeymooners), large family groups, and even senior citizens.

To address the specific requirements of Indian travellers, we have introduced a customised training programme in Port Blair and Havelock, in collaboration with the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The five-day programme was customised to suit individual requirements of local boatmen, hotel staff, tour escorts and drivers-and received an enthusiastic response, with 317 attendants being certified.

Havelock by Makruzz
Havelock Island is located almost 40 km by sea from Port Blair. One of the sought-after island destinations in Andamans, Havelock is known for its sublime natural beauty, pristine beaches, and experiential water sports activities. Ships operate from Port Blair to Havelock and other islands like Neil, Long Island, etc. While normal ferries take more than two hours to reach Havelock, our journey by the premium cruise ship, Makruzz, took less than 90 minutes. Makruzz is a luxury catamaran operating two round trips between Port Blair and Havelock. The air-conditioned 280-seater ship has two decks with three-class configuration – Premium (208), Deluxe (62), and Royal (8). As a special gesture from the owners, we were invited by the captain, who explained the state-of-the-art features of the ship. A video film by Tom Alter on Andaman’s tourism splendour kept major part of the journey educational and inspiring.

andamans_5.jpgOnce out of the ferry, we headed straight to the Elephanta Beach, which is popular for snorkelling and other water sports activities. Although popular among domestic tourists, Elephanta Beach hardly has any facilities or basic amenities to serve them.

For seafood-lovers, Andamans is heaven. The first exposure to the culinary delight of the islands was at TSG Blue Resort close to Radhanagar Beach in Havelock. The freshness of the catch was reflected in the preparation and presentation, which unfortunately is missed in the city hotels. The sheer variety of starters, fabulously presented, comprising lobsters, prawns, crabs, and red snapper made everyone skip the main course that was waiting to be served.  

Radhanagar Beach is ranked among the top beaches in Asia. It is well maintained and quite safe, even for the not-so-adventurous travellers. The sea is shallow to a good distance, making it fun diving into the water and get washed ashore with every invading wave.

andamans_6.jpgThe highlight of our stay at Havelock was the snorkelling expedition with Barefoot Scuba, one of the leading operators in the island. We headed straight to South Button Island early morning. It is a National Park located at a 40-minute speed-boat ride south-west of Havelock. The island’s surroundings are rich in coral reefs and marine life. The water is so clear that divers get a clear view of the corals as well as the marine life. Although, I have done scuba diving and snorkelling in Fiji and other such destinations earlier, the experience in South Button was by far the best, with Kartik and Neel, two young trainers, going the extra mile in identifying and explaining everything. The experience was repeated at Henry Lawrence Island as well, where the Tamarind Beach is so shallow and rich in corals.

Our stay at Havelock was arranged at SeaShell Resort, a beautiful property on the main road, a short distance from the jetty. The cottages and villas are set-up amidst a natural coconut grove.

While in Andamans, it is the natural colours of blue and green that fill the eyes, and it is the sound of invading waves that meet the ears. The destination is still virgin and unspoiled, and one can enjoy the nature in its pristine best form.
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