August 3, 2005

Environmentalists flay India’s Thai tourism plan

PORT BLAIR, India (Reuters) - Environmentalists have
slammed a tourism deal by India's tsunami-hit Andaman islands
with Thailand, saying such a move would destroy its fragile
ecology and encourage the sex trade.

The Dec. 26 tsunami killed thousands of people on India's
remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, caused massive
environmental damage and decimated the small tourism industry
in the rain forest-covered islands ringed by coral reefs.

In a move to breathe new life into the shattered economy,
authorities signed a five-year deal in June with the resort
town of Phuket in Thailand, famous for its beaches but also for
a burgeoning sex trade.

The deal would allow tourists visiting Phuket to take a
short flight to the Andamans.

But environmentalists warned the islands' infrastructure as
well as its ecology could not cope with a big number of

"It is a frightening proposal that can ruin the ecology,"
said Samir Acharya, one of a group of environmentalists who
have written to India's ruling Congress party opposing the

"Phuket's coral reefs are almost finished. Ours could go.

"It's difficult for local people to get regular supply of
water. Where will the water come from to sustain a big
industry?" said Acharya.

The Andamans lie some 1200 km (750 miles) east of the
Indian mainland but about 500 km (310 miles) from the Thai

The islands' chief administrator Ram Kapse has said if they
could get a small percentage of Phuket's tourist flow, it would
mean huge profits for the archipelago.

But environmental campaigners warned that those profits
could spell disaster for the archipelago.

"The danger is not for the ecology alone, but for the local
culture as well because the sex tourism culture of Phuket will
be imported here," Acharya said. Others agree.

"Having trashed Phuket, its resort owners are looking
avidly to the Andaman islands' pristine beaches to prop up
their flagging profits," said Bittu Sehgal, editor of a local
environment magazine and a signatory to the letter.

(Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee in NEW DELHI)