January 16, 2006

CORRECTED: India to open remote Andamans to foreign flights

Please delete in eighth paragraph ... At the moment, even
private domestic carriers do not fly there ...

By Palash Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Foreign tourists could soon be
boarding direct flights to India's remote Andaman and Nicobar
islands in a move officials hope will provide a major boost to
communities hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Most visitors have so far been Indians keen to see the most
far-flung outpost of their country, which borders Indonesia.

Travel is expensive and time consuming, with a one-way
flight from Delhi to the islands' capital, Port Blair, costing


The islands, home to ancient but dwindling tribes, are also
a major military base and foreigners need special permission to
visit Port Blair and are banned from the more remote Nicobars.

But the islands' top official told Reuters international
flights would soon be allowed to land in Port Blair.

"A decision has been taken to declare Port Blair an
international airport," chief administrator D.S. Negi said.

"As the islands are on the main air route to most of the
Southeast Asian countries, lots of tourists can come."

Charter flights from nearby Thailand had previously been
suggested. Plans to open Port Blair to international flights
have been discussed for some time.

Ringed by palm trees and with dense rain forests, coral
reefs and sparking sands, and lapped by the emerald waters of
the Indian Ocean, the islands -- 1,200 km (750 miles) east of
the mainland -- are likely to be a major draw.

Some of the beaches there have been ranked as among the
best in the world by newspapers and magazines.

"It's a paradise for those who really love nature," Negi
said during a visit to Delhi where he met tourism ministry

Visitors would also be able to island-hop, the official
said, using helicopters and light aircraft, instead of the
rickety ferries that connect the islands.

Negi said 10 uninhabited islands would be opened for
"high-end" tourists willing to pay premium rates.

Of the 572 islands that form the chain, only 38 are
inhabited, many by members of tribes who live as they have for
millennia with virtually no contact with the outside world.

Most of the islands are closed to tourists, including
Indians, mainly to protect their unique flora and fauna or
tribes. Conservationists have expressed concern over plans to
boost tourism in a fragile environment, especially with
drinking water already in short supply.

The December 26 tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake
off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, close to the southernmost
Nicobar island, killed almost 230,000 people. More than 3,513
are listed as dead or missing in the island chain.