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8 Aug, 2005

NGOs Protest Phuket-Andamans Twinning Agreement

A group of vocal Indian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sent a strong letter of protest to Indian Congress party leader Mrs Sonia Gandhi over the agreement to twin Phuket with the Andamans.

The letter, which addresses “the inappropriate choice of Phuket as model of tourism for the Andaman Islands”, may further cloud the Thai tourism industry’s plans to help bring visitors back to the South Thailand resorts. It has already been picked up by the BBC, some of the international news agencies and the mainstream Indian media.

The letter was sent to Mrs Gandhi in her capacity as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, a grouping of “distinguished professionals” from research organizations, NGOs and social action and advocacy groups who advise on ways to implement of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) mainfesto of the Congress-led government .

However, there is also a personal angle. As the letter points out, it was Mrs Gandhi’s late husband Rajiv, the former Prime Minister assassinated in 1991 by a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, who once chaired India’s Island Development Authority.

In July 1989, that authority had issued a declaration that tourism development on the Andaman Islands would ensure: “Fullest involvement of the local population from the viewpoint of decision-making, employment opportunity and economic benefits, etc; protection of the environment and ecology and natural beauty of the islands; be within the carrying capacity of the islands, and; relate to the rich natural environments of oceans and forests that characterise these territories. Construction, food, recreation, etc. will all relate to them.”

The letter said these ideals will be “thrown to the winds” if the agreement to twin with Phuket is implemented.

Says the letter, “The idea of Phuket as a model for tourism on the Andaman Islands is frightening. In a 2004 summer survey by National Geographic Traveler magazine of 115 popular travel destinations worldwide, Phuket came out number 113, being described as ‘getting ugly’.

“Academic publications (cf. www.american.edu/TED/thaitour.htm ), note that because of rampant destruction of coral and marine life, waste dumping by restaurants and hotels, and ‘the slavery of young children and women in the prostitution industry that has led to the rampant spread of AIDS,’ Thailand and in particular its resort islands are fast approaching ‘a crisis situation’.

“Tourism development on Thailand’s islands, including Phuket, has been grotesquely unplanned, with construction on beaches and within national parks, and waste and sewage dumping in the sea. Such activities have destroyed corals, dirtied beaches and otherwise destroyed tourism assets, making the tourism industry heavily dependent on the sex trade.

“In September 2004 an international newsletter for scuba divers ran an article entitled ‘Thailand’s Dirty Little Secret: Phuket’s Coral Reefs are Dead.’ It noted that most of the destruction was due to sludge from construction and coral bleaching facilitated by water pollution, and, adding that Thailand’s tourism officials were “aggressively promoting” linked tourism spots in the region, asked, “Will the Andamans be next?”

The letter says that Phuket suffered far more tsunami damage than did the Andamans, “in large part because its model of development had devastated the coral and mangrove barriers.”

“It is scarcely surprising that, having trashed Phuket, its resort owners are looking avidly to the Andaman Islands’ pristine beaches and corals to prop up their flagging profits. What they have to gain from access to the Andamans is very clear; what the Andamans have to gain from the twinning is not at all clear.”

The letter says the Andamans have dangerously limited supplies of water; “on this count alone, they cannot afford luxury resorts with swimming pools, hot tubs and golf courses.

“Before inviting tourists on anything like the scale proposed — Phuket gets four million a year — the administration should first solve the acute problems that local residents have to face in this respect, and demonstrate the efficacy of various water management and harvesting techniques.”

It added, “Perhaps no other destination in the world offers, as does Phuket, such attractions as ‘Uncle Charlie’s Boys for Men,’ specifically designed for pedophiles.”

The letter says the Andamans “need ecosensitive tourists, who are prepared to pay simply for the privilege of visiting a pristine and unique environment. The tourism model needs to be such that the Andamans’ primary tourism asset—the sheer beauty of the place—is maintained, and tourists keep coming back.”

Instead, it recommended that the Indian government first ensure that all existing environmental regulations are stringently enforced. Many lapses currently exist in enforcement with considerable illegal tourism-related construction becoming evident in recent years.

Other recommendations included in the letter:

● Review the Phuket agreement from the point of view of long-term dangers to the Andaman environment and people.

● Identify and encouraged tourism schemes, that do not damage essential assets such as beaches, forests and corals, but yield long-term and sustainable gains to locals.

● Discourage the free flow of tourists from Phuket. A high entry fee or AIDS screening could possibly be imposed.

● Keep a stringent watch on yachts, pleasure boats and other vessels emanating from Thailand. These measures should include mandatory filing of sailing plans and surprise checks by the Navy, Police, Coast Guard and Customs.

● Discourage the free flow of imports from Thailand, especially of items that compete with local products.

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