Paradise in waiting

With their swimming elephants, coral reefs and world-class beaches, the Andaman Islands are a holiday paradise in waiting, writes Ben Stubbs.

The waters around the Andaman Islands were once known as Kalapani, or the Black Waters, by sailors, who avoided the unseen reefs and indigenous tribes that "had frightful eyes and enormous feet" within the jungles of the interior. Even intrepid explorer Marco Polo was said to have skirted the edges of the Andamans in his travels, only to chicken out at the sight of the locals.

The stigma around this chain of 572 islands has long since been shaken off and this gradual change has allowed the world to discover the area's beauty and intrigue. With tourism and commercial interests irrevocably changing the islands, they are set for large-scale changes.

The Great Andamanese people of the Andaman and Nicobar islands were a tribe of hunters and warriors who once roamed the forests and lagoons of this island chain. They adorned themselves in nothing but decorative shells, bones and body paint and lived an uncomplicated lifestyle, hunting, fishing and living in jungle dwellings. Until the mid-19th century they had a population of more than 5000.

As the islands were uncovered and exploited by the colonial British looking to use the abundant natural resources and establish a penal colony, the Great Andamanese were discovered.

Hundreds died in epidemics of the measles, pneumonia and the flu. Their habitat was destroyed by deforestation and conflict. In the infamous "battle of Aberdeen" in 1859, the naked Andamanese, fighting with simple bows and arrows, were decimated by British soldiers who had guns and ammunition at their disposal.

The Great Andamanese tribe has since dwindled to fewer than 30 surviving members and they have been relocated to the tiny Strait Island in the hope of avoiding extinction.

As I arrive in the Andaman capital of Port Blair, more than 1200 kilometres from mainland India, I'm not sure what to expect; a pristine jungle paradise or an exploited beach destination like Phuket, Bali and Penang with towering resorts, European swimwear and banana pancakes?

Port Blair is a ramshackle city perched on the east coast of the Andamans. It is swathed in jungle foliage and humidity that makes mould spread across the cafe walls like bruises. I'm surprised how much it is like India. Cows swat flies with their tails and amble along the streets, motorised rickshaws zoom across the intersections and there are Sikh tailors, Hindu temples and omnipresent moustaches at every corner.

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The islands were frequented by many sailors in the past as they travelled through the Bay of Bengal. When they were eventually settled by the British, Port Blair was set up as a penal colony for Indian revolutionaries. The jail in Port Blair is now a prison museum set out like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It acts as a harsh reminder of the island's dark history.

Further into town among the glittering bangle shops and Indian eateries, the anthropological museum details the plight of the five other major indigenous tribes that have inhabited the islands along with the Great Andamanese: from the hostile Sentinelese, who still aggressively avoid outside contact, to the nomadic Shompen of Great Nicobar Island.

Walking through town to the Havelock Island ferry, the shipping containers and fishing vessels of Port Blair demonstrate the commercial viability the islands now have as a trade point between South Asia and India.

Havelock is the most developed of the Andaman Islands with a smattering of luxury resorts, dive centres and bamboo huts looking out to the Bay of Bengal. Sitting on the ferry to Havelock Island, the passengers are an eclectic mix of bearded shoestring travellers looking for a place to hang their hammocks, clean-cut western Europeans here for a week of secluded indulgence and inhabitants of the islands who make their living from farming, fishing and the growing tourism industry. While Havelock Island still retains a sense of isolation with limited tourist infrastructure and development, the internet cafes and guesthouses echo the feeling I have that this is a destination waiting to explode with bars, restaurants and Starbucks outlets sooner rather than later. Five domestic Indian airlines now fly to the Andamans daily and the traffic is only going to increase.

The attraction of these islands is easy to understand. Radhanagar Beach on Havelock Island was called the best in Asia by Time magazine in 2004.

The island's secluded coves are surrounded by dense jungle that house orchids, huge papaya trees and a wealth of virgin forest. The islands are home to more than 200 species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else on earth and the jungles harbour 95 endemic bird species, from purple racket-tailed drongos that have two large plumes resembling spatulas hanging off their backs to Nicobar pigeons that dive-bomb through the undergrowth like magpies.

Beyond the white sand, the islands also host a wealth of marine life. The Andaman Islands contain whole coral forests unplundered by tourism. As dive guru Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, the Andamans are "a wondrous realm of stunning marine life and coral reefs, swimming elephants and pristine beaches" - from the shelves of South Button Island that shelter clown fish, turtles, stingrays and triggerfish to the schools of hammerhead sharks circling the waters of Barren Island, shaded by an active volcano that last erupted in 1991.

On Interview Island live the swimming elephants. The British colonisers imported scores of Asian elephants to help transport materials throughout the islands.

When the British left it was too expensive to take the elephants back to the mainland so they were relocated to Interview Island. During the years of their isolation they thrived in the wild and have been left in peace to roam the beaches and clearings of what is now called Elephant Island. Taking a day trip past its isolated coves, it is not unusual to see a band of wild-looking elephants stamp up and down the sand before diving in for a swim.

The beaches of the east coast of Havelock Island (imaginatively named No.3 and No.5) are seeded with a few restaurants catering to the growing visitor needs. At one of the eateries I discover that coming to Havelock is also an attractive prospect for locals. Michael is a Nicobarese man in his late 20s. His family are fishermen who live in the Nicobar Islands to the south.

These are out of bounds to foreigners and as a result Michael tells me that "the only employment opportunities are industrial with no real economic prospects. Working with tourists allows my family a chance for progression and education".

While Michael seems unsure of the long-term effects tourism will have, he is happy, at least for the moment, working in a tourist restaurant as it allows him to support his family and still provide for his parents who live in the tsunami-ravaged Nicobar Islands.

The sense of people coming here for the modern opportunities is evident throughout the islands. I meet Indian rickshaw drivers who have never left after their grandparents arrived here as political prisoners, teachers posted here 30 years ago from Chennai and Kolkata and the melancholy sight of native islanders who accompany tourists on fishing and camping expeditions to the isolated beaches around Havelock where they once reigned free. The Jarawa tribe has recently seen some of their numbers venture away from the jungles into civilisation, buoyed by the prospect of modern amenities and greater opportunities.

Just as the indigenous population is a now a mix of the wild and the assimilated, the environment is also in a transitional phase. The 8249 square kilometres of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, stretching from Burma to Sumatra, remain mainly untamed.

Logging that once ripped away the habitats of animals has declined and tourism is only allocated a finite amount of land and resources. Eco-tourism and sustainability are anthems trumpeted throughout the islands with regularity.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands' director of tourism, Vinod Kumar, says that while tourism is a growing industry on the islands (visitor numbers have tripled since 2005), every effort is being made to make this a manageable practice for both the people and the environment.

With arguably the most beautiful virgin beaches in Asia, a plethora of endemic flora and fauna and an intriguing mix of ethnic diversity and culture, it won't just be the tourists who hope this paradise remains sustainable.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Malaysian Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Chennai, on India's east coast. See malaysiaairlines.com.

From Chennai, many domestic airlines fly daily to the capital of the Andaman Islands, Port Blair. These include: Air Deccan (airdeccan.com), Jet Airways (jetairways.com) and SpiceJet (spicejet.com). The ferry to Havelock Island leaves twice daily and costs 200 rupees ($6). The Barefoot Resort can also organise private transfers in one of its boats.

Staying there

The Barefoot Resort at Havelock Island has luxury cottages starting at 3400 rupees (about $97). See barefoot-andaman.com or email reservations@barefootindia.com.

For budget accommodation head for beach No.5 on the east coast of the island, which has numerous beach huts for less than $10.

The Sun Herald

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