Two days

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.