BLUEPRINT FOR PARADISE
WITH ITS SOLID ECOLOGICAL CREDENTIALS, THE ANDAMAN ISLANDS’ FIRST FIVE-STAR RESORT MAY WELL PROVIDE A TEMPLATE FOR TOURISM DEVELOPMENT IN THIS FRAGILE INDIAN ARCHIPELAGO.
into my rainy-season visit to Havelock Island last June, the weather broke. A steady west wind sent the newsprint-colored clouds scudding over the horizon, and I set out with naturalist Jocelyn Panjikaran to explore the shoreline that hosts the first five-star hotel in India’s remote Andaman Islands. Taking advantage of low tide, we picked our way among the coral and rock, spotting kingfishers and hermit crabs as we talked about the stunning variety of sea life that visits the resort’s all-but private cove, now too murky to snorkel thanks to the wind and rain.
“You see a lot of rays. Sea turtles nest right on this beach. The other day I was diving by myself and they were all around me—I couldn’t believe it was really happening!” Jocelyn enthused, using what I would later recognize was one of her favorite expressions.
Jocelyn’s love for the Andamans—which, along with the Nicobar chain to the south, comprise one of India’s seven federally governed union territories—is infectious. A former financial analyst from Pune, she first came here on holiday six years ago and never left. Smitten by the islands, Jocelyn took a job with a nonprofit called the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team in Port Blair, the territorial capital, where she worked until she signed on as an assistant sustainability manager at the Taj hotel group’s Havelock Island resort, which debuted last February.
It was a radical move. But the Indian government has even more dramatic plans for this isolated chain of 500-plus islands in the Bay of Bengal. In keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love for grandiose schemes, New Delhi unveiled a US$1.4 billion plan in 2015 to transform Port Blair into a hub for commercial shipping. A government think tank called the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) announced shortly thereafter a proposal for the “holistic development” of four other islands with “eco-friendly resorts, scuba-diving centers, etc.” And this past August, the Restricted Area Permits required by foreigners to visit much of the archipelago were significantly scaled back, with unrestricted access granted to 29 islands in the Andamans and Nicobar, including Havelock—the hub of the local tourism industry—and the four main islands of North Andaman, Middle Andaman, South Andaman, and Little Andaman.
Not everyone is happy with this direction. The haphazard development of tourism in places like Shimla and Goa doesn’t inspire much confidence in the government’s “holistic” vision. The stakes are arguably higher in the Andamans, where fragile ecosystems are matched by the equally tenuous existence of an indigenous tribal people called the Jarawa, who until two decades ago had almost no contact with the outside world. The local administration’s failure a few years back to heed a court order banning tourism activities along a road that cuts through a Jarawa forest reserve on South Andaman Island has done little to instill confidence. Despite considerable outrage at the “human safaris” organized by certain tour operators, any concern over the exploitation of the Jarawa seems to have taken a back seat to commercial interests.
On the other hand, many locals are optimistic about the entrance of the Taj group. I learned this from author Pankaj Sekhsaria, an environmentalist who has been writing about the islands for more than 20 years. “Even people who do not directly benefit are very excited about it,” he told me. “It’s a matter of prestige for them. Finally, we are on the map.”
I’d come to the new Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans, to see how far the luxury brand could go in pioneering a real commitment to eco-friendly practices—and whether leading by example would be enough to keep the worst excesses of development at bay.
Set a couple hundred
meters back from the high-tide mark on Havelock’s Radhanagar Beach—a pristine strip of white sand that Time magazine once called the best beach in Asia—the Taj Exotica wears its commitment to the environment on its sleeve, as it were. Adhering to rules that were imposed when the Andaman and Nicobar timber industry was shut down by India’s Supreme Court in 2001, the architects designed the main lodge and 72 luxury villas (of which 54 have been completed) to be built without chopping down a single tree. As a result, towering stands of sea mohua, gurjan, and padauk form a dense canopy over the main part of the property. The foliage is so thick that I was able to walk from my villa to the poolside restaurant without worrying about the monsoon drizzle.
Saving the trees was challenging, explains general manager Abnash Kumar, who oversaw the construction of the resort. Engineers had to study the soil and root patterns before plans for the hotel could be drawn up. Then every stick of wood and sack of concrete and everything else used to build it had to be shipped from the mainland to Port Blair, then offloaded onto smaller boats to be transferred to the shallower waters of Havelock. But minimizing the impact of the project—and planting trees back on the mainland to offset the use of imported timber—was only the beginning.
The biggest, or at least the most obvious, environmental issue for the islands is trash disposal, so the Taj has embarked on a ruthless campaign to eliminate plastics. There’s a glass-bottling plant for purified water and refillable dispensers for the Ayurveda-based Forest Essentials toiletries found in the villa bathrooms, not to mention bamboo drinking straws, wooden toothbrushes, and so on. A biogas facility produces electricity and compost from wet garbage, while a solar-power plant is in the works to further reduce the hotel’s dependence on diesel-fueled generators, which provide all the electricity on the island. Rotating eight-person teams spend three hours cleaning the beach every alternate day, sometimes collecting as much as 300 kilograms of trash. They include everybody from the housekeeping staff to the general manager, which itself communicates an important message in a society where cleaning up is too often viewed as demeaning work.
Perhaps most importantly, given that “eco-friendly” can often be little more than a marketing slogan, the Taj group has brought in Brisbane-based environmental certification firm EarthCheck to evaluate and verify its practices.
“Taj is the first luxury brand to come to the island, so we are looking at benchmarking ecotourism for everybody else,” Jocelyn explained.
That’s vital now more than ever. Walking along Radhanagar Beach, I marveled at how unspoiled it remains. On the 12-kilometer stretch from the Taj’s snorkeling cove to a mangrove forest inhabited by saltwater crocodiles, there is only one other resort, Barefoot at Havelock, a small, rustic operation that is also nestled among towering trees. More than a third the size of Thailand’s Koh Samui, Havelock currently hosts only about 25 resorts, most of them—with the notable exception of Jalakara, a discreet seven-room villa hotel surrounded by lush rain forest—simple cottages and shacks strung out along the island’s northeast shore, where the ferry from Port Blair lands.
The other islands slated for development are even more pristine: nine-tenths of the Andamans’ 6,400-odd square kilometers of land is protected forest, while 1,600 square kilometers is reserved for indigenous tribes. The archipelago boasts one of the most spectacular and extensive reefs in the world, and the islands themselves are biodiversity hot spots, with hundreds of flowering plants, terrestrial animals, and marine species that only exist here. As Kumar put it, “This is literally the Lost World.”
Change is coming, however, and what form it will take isn’t entirely clear.
While the Nicobar Islands served as a malaria-infested Danish colony for a hundred years before British India took them over, the Andamans in the 19th century were best known as a penal settlement for political dissidents, particularly after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. (Port Blair’s infamous Cellular Jail was a later invention, built in 1906 to intern a new generation of Indian nationalists). Their unsavory history aside, the islands’ population has been growing steadily since 1951, when the newly independent India set out to claim the Andamans by settling first Karen migrants from Burma, then Bengali refugees from what was once East Pakistan, and then laborers from the northern Indian state of Bihar.
Since the 1980s, the number of tourists visiting the islands has skyrocketed from a mere 10,000 a year to more than 400,000 in 2017. That’s tiny compared with the 8.4 million people who visited nearby Phuket the same year. But it’s still about one tourist for every permanent resident, an influx that environmentalists warn has already put undue strain on Port Blair’s limited supply of fresh water. The vast majority of those tourists are Indian, including many budget travelers taking advantage of cheap charters and a “leave travel concession” for government employees. And while the various development plans call for attracting wealthy travelers and limiting the overall volume, none of them has included any cap on arrivals.
“There has been a growing influx of tourists, but mostly from [Indian online travel companies] MakeMyTrip and Cleartrip,” said Sumer Verma, the CEO of Lacadives, India’s oldest scuba-diving company (it first set up in the Lakshadweep Islands in 1995, but has since relocated to Chidiyatapu village on South Andaman Island, a 30-minute drive from Port Blair). “What’s been lacking over the last five years have been quality operators coming in to set up, so we are positive about getting some highend infrastructure [from the Taj group].”
Featuring beautiful sloping reefs and stunning coral gardens alongside shipwrecks and seagrass beds inhabited by sea turtles and dugong, the sea here is thick with manta rays and moray eels, as well as schools of snapper and barracuda and countless other fishes. But like the island-hopping cruises you can take to places like Baratang’s limestone caves or Barren Island—home to India’s only active volcano—the greatest lure of these dives is the feeling that you’re exploring someplace new. Underwater, that might even be true, as operators are still discovering new dive sites every year.
“The Andamans definitely have some worldclass dive sites,” Verma said. “Because of its isolation, its pristine forests, and its warm, clear tropical waters, it’s an exciting place for divers to explore.”
Mind you, guests at the Taj Exotica might be content to simply luxuriate. I fell for my villa the moment I laid my eyes on its minimalist design, which incorporates the curved roof and stilts the Jarawa people use for their huts, but with chic modern lines. Most mornings I spent lolling in a lounge chair on my deck listening to the monsoon rain patter on the thatched roof, with a piping-hot cappuccino and fresh biscuits at hand. Inside, the rich chestnut hue of the wooden walls and ceiling complemented a sinfully comfortable canopied bed, while the bathroom was larger than the entire hotel room my wife and I had shared in London two weeks earlier.
Because of the season, it was an indolent trip. But that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the dazzling panoply of sea life in the surrounding waters. My every meal at the poolside Turtle House restaurant featured a new local game fish, starting with an astounding grilled trevally—here called kokari— that spilled over the edges of my dinner plate. Best of all, though, was the tasting menu prepared at The Settlers, an innovative concept restaurant that, I suspect, is destined to become the resort’s most talked-about feature.
As its name suggests, The Settlers focuses on the unique cuisine fostered in the archipelago by the migrants relocated here from
Burma, Bengal, Bihar, and Kerala as they adopted local ingredients —mangrove crab, giant taro, the aforementioned kokari—into their cooking. The chef, Anal Uniyal, has made Anthony Bourdain–style sojourns through the islands to gather recipes and inspiration. And the results are so remarkable I have doubts the hotel will be able to stick to its plan to limit the restaurant to a single 10-person chef’s table. Beginning with a starter of local sardines and pumpkin chips served with three subtle yet complex chutneys (mango, string bean, and taro), my meal reached its apotheosis with an incredibly sweet and rich pepper crab. Spiced with wild coriander, it was made from a coal-black mangrove crab the size of a hubcap—a small one, the waiter informed me apologetically.
The next morning the sun was shining again, so I walked down to the beach to indulge in a little body surfing—if snorkeling was out, the least I could do was enjoy the waves. Before I could so much as dip a toe in the water, one of the local islanders employed by the hotel as a “live guide” dragged a lounge chair onto the sand for me and trotted off to get me a bottle of water.
Idly clutching a fistful of sand, I contemplated how it’s impossible to stop the grains from trickling out between your fingers and felt a momentary kinship with the bureaucrats who yearn to transform this place into India’s answer to the Maldives. Confronted with such stunning beauty, it was only natural to want to share it, I thought with uncharacteristic charity. But I also worried that bringing in more visitors, no matter how wealthy or enlightened, would swiftly rob these islands of the one thing that makes them more alluring than livelier spots in Indonesia and Thailand.
Letting the sand drop from my fist, I walked into the surf and congratulated myself for visiting while the mystery remains.
Opposite, clockwise from top left: Naturalist Jocelyn Panjikaran; poolside at the Taj Exotica; seafood at the resort is given a distinctly local flavor; inside one of the resort’s spacious villas.
Right: Taj kitchen staff. Below: Local lobster at The Settlers restaurant.Opposite: The curving thatched roofs of the resort’s villas take their cues from the huts of the islands’ indigenous Jarawa people.