Travel

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: where bureaucracy ensures environmental integrity

Grassroots tours in the Indian archipelago demonstrate just how the islands are trying to protect themselves from overtourism Friday, June 14, 2019

By Josephine Price
Andaman Islands

“There!” he yelps. My eyes dart, but the water is still. 

“Quick, there,” he screeches, and again my eyes follow his. In the distance, a fish shoots out of the water. The crescent of the splash is reflected in the smile that ignites Qutub’s face, his cheeks soaring up to meet his ears. “Yeehaa,” he squeals, punching the air. It’s the second bluefin trevally we’ve seen today. 

I’d met Qutub, a fisherman from Bangalore, on a jetty in Havelock Island. We’ve headed out on the fishing boat he built himself, into a vast expanse of blue. If we carry on going straight for several hundred miles, we’d hit Myanmar but, instead, we veer west towards Middle Andaman Island, accompanied by more cackles and fist pumps as Qutub spots schools of groupers. Originally from the Indian mainland, Qutub came here for fishing opportunities in 1996 and his energy for the endeavour hasn’t dimmed a notch. 

There’s a frenetic energy beneath the water — and one above, too, as we tentatively wait for another bluefin trevally to pierce through that cerulean ceiling. All around us, the water teems with wildlife. “Fishing here is very visual,” Qutub tells me. The sea may be a hive of activity, but my eye is drawn to land. We’ve sailed past island after island of pristine rainforest and beaches; this is not what island tourism usually feels like. 

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have all the scenery of the Maldives and the Seychelles, the rugged verdant interior of Mauritius and the archipelago vibe of the Greek islands — but with none of the crowds of any of them. Divers gather around the beach shacks lining Havelock Bay, but that’s where the bustle ends. There are plenty of places to drift off to. Almost 600 islands make up this speckled land in the Bay of Bengal. They are geographically closer to Thailand and Myanmar, but remain under India’s auspice and time zone. And here, they put conservation first. The islands are — so people repeatedly tell me — “India’s baby”. Everyone, according to Qutub, is keeping an eye on how tourism develops here.

With the rise of visitors came the enforcement of laws. There’s a desire to not let tourism dent traditions and change the islands’ environmental integrity. Expect, in return, a wave of bureaucracy as a guest, from having to fly via mainland India to the permits that only allow access to certain islands. Then there are the inter-island ferries that must be pre-booked and run to the vaguest of schedules. 

You aren’t just passing through when you visit the Andamans. And I’m OK with that; I’m more than happy to dawdle, box-tick, hoop-jump, and form-fill if it means helping these islands remain pristine. 

As we glide through the strait between Peel and Nicholson islands, I admire the centuries-old forests, conserved by India’s strict logging laws. But out here on the water, things are happening. Qutub points out a spattering of light ahead. There’s something shimmering below the surface. “That way,” he beams, and we’re off again. 

How to do it: A double room at Jalakara, a boutique hotel in Havelock’s rainforest interior, costs from £155 per night. jalakara.info 
Boat trips: andamansportsfishing.com  JP   

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