Shimul Bijoor, Deepika Sharma and Madhuri Ramesh
During the first phase of our project, wherein we studied the governance and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Andamans, we observed the keen influence of tourism on the way that most spaces in the islands are governed. Tourism influenced which islands were better connected by transport facilities, what food was imported to the islands, what activities were allowed where, and which spaces needed more protection than others. This wasn’t surprising, considering tourism is one of the largest economies in the Andamans. To add to this, the islands are now in the wake of a massive transformation, as several government and private schemes are set to turn the Andaman and Nicobar islands into a high-end tourism destination by the likes of Maldives and Singapore. These projects aim to bump up tourist influx to islands from the present 4-5 lakh a year to an exponential 12 lakh tourists a year. The implementation of these ambitious plans seem unrealistic, when the islands are already straining to sustain the current levels of tourist influx, given the state of public infrastructure. Therefore, when we returned to the islands for the second phase of our project, we wanted to look at the effects of tourism, how it was being managed at present, and what can be done to help support a more sustainable growth in tourism. To do this, we first tried to identify the various stakeholders involved, the nature of their engagements with tourism, and what were the challenges that each of them faced in managing current levels of tourism.
We spoke to nearly 110 people across Diglipur, Smith and Ross islands, Port Blair, and Havelock Island (now Swaraj Dweep!), conducting interviews with representatives from various government departments, members of public administration, SHG workers, fishermen, dive shop owners, travel agents, and resort managers. We asked a range of questions including where they get their food and supplies from, what they do with the waste their household or business generates, how often they engage with workshops or training programs for tourism and skill development, how they feel about tourism in their backyards, and what they envision for the future of tourism.
Tourism has brought with it a number of opportunities, and working in tourism offers islanders relatively higher incomes across all levels of education. For instance, a young man selling seashells by the sea shore pointed out that despite having acquired a B.A. in History, this job earns him nearly 1 lakh rupees a month, whereas working in the government or other industries not only has limited opportunities, but offers significantly lower incomes.
These discussions also revealed several hardships faced across the range of stakeholders. Issues like waste management, transportation of basic supplies, mobility, a shortage of labour, cultural changes, and a lack of training and regulation were concerns that cropped up everywhere. For example, with only so much land available, the islands are running out of space to dump their waste, and burning has been the most affordable option for most. Patchy connectivity slows down everything from organising meetings to responding to emergencies and transporting supplies. The rising value of land as a result of tourism is also leading to family disputes when deciding how the land should be divided among themselves, and what it should be used for.
Through these discussions, we then attempted to identify some action points for what can be done about these challenges. Simple changes such as improving signage and tourist awareness, to conducting sustainable tourism and entrepreneurship workshops, to more institutional reforms to improve accountability of businesses and make them more mindful of where they get their food from, how much plastic they use, etc. begged attention.
We hope that such conversations and findings can help move discussions beyond the black and white talks on whether tourism is beneficial or not, and move towards how to make tourism more responsible and inclusive, given the Islands’ unique location.