The Andaman Islands
India’s most remote state, the Andaman Islands are situated more than 1000km off the east coast in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, connected to the mainland by flights and ferries from Kolkata, Chennai and Vishakapatnam. Thickly covered by deep green tropical forest, the archipelago supports a profusion of wildlife, including some extremely rare species of bird, but the principal attraction for tourists lies in the beaches and the pristine reefs that ring most of the islands. Filled with colourful fish and kaleidoscopic corals, the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman Sea feature some of the world’s richest and least spoilt marine reserves – perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving. Although parts of the archipelago still see few visitors, the Andamans are now firmly on the tourist circuit.
For administrative purposes, the Andamans are grouped with the Nicobar Islands, 200km further south, but these remain strictly off-limits to foreigners, as well as Indians with no direct business there. Approximately two hundred islands make up the Andaman group and nineteen the Nicobar. They are of varying size, the summits of a submarine mountain range stretching 755km from the Arakan Yoma chain in Burma to the fringes of Sumatra in the south. All but the most remote are populated in parts by indigenous tribes whose numbers have been slashed dramatically as a result of nineteenth-century European settlement and, more recently, rampant deforestation, now banned at least in theory.
With the timber-extraction cash cow now largely tethered, the hope is that tourism will replace tree-felling as the main source of revenue on the Andamans. However, the extra visitor numbers envisaged are certain to overtax an already inadequate infrastructure, aggravating seasonal water shortages and sewage disposal problems. Given India’s track record with tourism development, it’s hard to be optimistic about how these issues will be managed. Consequently, it’s no small mercy that plans to allow flights from Southeast Asia and even further afield to enter India at Port Blair seem to be on permanent hold, as the impact on this culturally and ecologically fragile region could be catastrophic.
The point of arrival for boats and planes is the small but busy capital, Port Blair in South Andaman, which holds almost half the total population. The only island to have fully developed a tourist infrastructure is Havelock, although its smaller neighbour Neil is heading in the same direction. The other places where foreigners can spend the night are on the large islands of Middle and North Andaman, connected to South Andaman by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), diminutive Long Island and remote Little Andaman, a long voyage to the south. The outlying islands are richest in natural beauty, with the beaches of Smith and the coral around Cinque of particular note. Such spots are not always easy to reach, as connections and transport can be erratic, frequently uncomfortable and severely limited.