Lakshadweep Calling: PM Plays the Brand Ambassador

It has been a relatively less talked about destination, discovered some decades back, ironically also made popular at that time by the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Unfortunately, his visit too sparked controversies, but of another kind, with reference to sustainability laws, with media decrying his idea of a holiday. But then, this time too, there have been outcries but of another kind! Imagine how a prime minister on holiday with friends became a subject of derision; as a country we have moved to a much more open society with a PM espousing his citizens to take holidays and discover their country.

This time, released photographs promote the pristine quality of this eco-friendly destination. PM Modi is visibly relaxed and enjoying a quiet and reflective discovery. His visit has coincided with the inauguration or granting of numerous schemes that would improve both the quality of life of the average inhabitant and also improve the visitor experience to the islands.

That these islands are in the deep south, neighbouring the ever-popular Maldives, is also a call for strengthening our defense capabilities in the Indian Ocean. This is a destination of unparalleled raw beauty, nature at its most charming best. But then national security comes first, with no compromises. Media reports suggest the government intends to build an airbase on the Minicoy Island, for both defence and tourism.

Given this new spotlight, it might even be the right time to determine the carrying capacity of the islands, and ensuring that we adhere to the limited numbers that Lakshadweep can handle. A plan for development transparently shared by the local administration. There is no getting away from development and develop we must. How responsible can this approach be, is the question? We bring a few alternate opinions on this issue, a subject of a recent debate set up by the Responsible Tourism Society of India.   – Editor

HH Jodhpur:
Gaj Singh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit has undoubtedly placed these eco-friendly islands in the spotlight, drawing global attention to the island’s untouched beauty. The appeal of these pristine islands is undeniable, but this newfound attention comes with an inherent risk of overdevelopment and rampant tourism. The islands find themselves in the crossroads of economic growth, fueled by tourism influx, and the risk of harmful consequences. We must therefore understand the delicate balance between economic growth and environment protection. Unchecked tourism can be a wolf in sheep’s closing. Devouring the very beauty of the serenity of these islands that attracts visitors in the first place.

The Himalayan Hill stations should be a warning to us. We have already witnessed adverse effects of unregulated growth, and now the threat extends to the pristine islands of Lakshadweep. We stand at a juncture where we must navigate challenges posed by the rising demands of tourists and tourism, ensuring that the island’s unique ecosystems remain unharmed, and the lives of those residing there are enhanced and not unduly disrupted. The local population is very important in all tourism projects. I’m no expert on marine tourism, but at the same time, there are basic methods and ways and means about how we should address tourism.

The Lakshadweep islands with their coral reefs, vibrant marine life demand our conscious attention. Lakshadweep tourism demands mindful growth, respect for the geology, ecology, and culture. We must respect these parameters and develop tourism responsibly and in hand with the locals, flourishing tourism that benefits all. We must educate the local communities and steer the ship by involving them in crucial decision-making processes. This way we can harness their valuable knowledge of the area’s culture, environment and resources for crafting policies that preserve the unique identity of the destination. That does empower local communities to be custodians of their own land, not passive on local, that tourism benefits them without eroding their way of life and lifestyle. The Lakshadweep tourism development must become an international model.

And that should be its USP. The island should not be moulded to fit external expectations. They chasing other popular destinations or chasing inappropriate trends in tourism and organic growth; guided by local voices and respecting natural limits is the only path to a thriving future for both the islands and their communities.

Sheel Bannerjee

Former secretary tourism, Government of India (IAS retired)

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean is a compulsion which we cannot ignore. And now how that is to be balanced with these other concerns is going to be the issue. So now we’ll have to eventually take it all up with the government, really decide what happens in Lakshadweep as a part of the entire change.

I think we have already known the impact of over-tourism in our hill stations, not only the hill stations but also very important tourism destinations like the Taj. If I recall right, some time ago there were very disturbing reports that the footfalls to the Taj were actually coming down because of the unregulated tourism visits that were being allowed.

My hope is that this trend has been reversed. I understand that some measures like regulating the number of visitors to the Taj have been implemented. Perhaps that is resulting in positive results. Similarly, the impact of over tourism on an ecologically fragile region, like the Lakshadweep cannot be underplayed.  Now, I have been talking about the carrying capacity of tourism destinations and how one should regulate it for quite some time now. But that can be not only at the peril of the tourism destination itself. Now, if Lakshadweep is allowed to go ahead and invite tourists without any restriction, without any understanding of the issues, I think that will be a disaster that we can all avoid.

So, the idea here is to prep up India’s capacity in the ocean, to ensure self-defense, against all possible situations that can arise. So, keeping that in mind, there are certain compulsions which have to be taken note of for India to respond. I think, in a place like Lakshadweep, it is critical, especially with the developments of what has happened in Maldives recently and what is happening now. So, the choices before the Indian government would be limited, and they have to respond. So, while we should not be seen as a society, while emphasizing a very real threat to the ecological wellbeing of these very fragile areas of Lakshadweep, we should also keep this kind of threat in mind while giving our responses. So, I think while we should say over-tourism should not be considered, it should not be allowed. At the same time, it should be done in a manner which will keep India’s interests safe in the region.

Samit Sawhney

Barefoot Pioneer, Andaman Islands

I bring in 20 years of experience in Andamans. So, these 20 years are, you know, the jumpstart that Andamans tourism got actually over Lakshadweep. So, in a lot of ways, it’s like seeing the same train track happening all over again in slow motion because we’ve, you know, 20 years ago when Andamans just started to open up, we had all the same concerns. All the same buzzwords were thrown around. It is there in every tourism action plan. And the vision documents policy, if you read them, they are all perfect. You know they all say high value, low volume. Even now, if you read the state plans for Lakshadweep, the optics is correct. The language is correct. The problem is what happens in implementation.

And we’ve, you know, we’ve seen a situation in, and, and luckily Andamans has a lot more landmarks. It is a lot bigger, it has more opportunities to get things wrong, than Lakshadweep ever will, because Lakshadweep is tiny in comparison, and there is really no scope for mistakes. And really having made a mess of the two main tourist islands in Andamans, that should actually be a bit of warning. When you open up tourism with a few buzzwords and no actual practice on ground. The disconnect between policy and implementation is actually where that fight happens.

But what’s already happening, two properties have gone out on tender. They have gone to The Taj. A third one I’ve just shared on the group, Minicoy has been re-tendered. It’s very clear what you have to build. The winning bidder has to cough up 150 rooms, 40 of them in the lagoon and on the reef. These things are part of the tender. You can’t back out of it. So, the question then is, you know, where can you come in and where can you make any form of difference.

There is usually such a huge disconnect between what is being planned and what actually needs to happen? So, you know, the only people you can work with are the ones who are meant to implement the projects that have already been tendered out. And secondly, you know, work with the administrations and locally as well; it’s not just policy level, but also making sure that there’s some kind of monitoring body, which is what Andamans has missed.

So even though Andamans has this high value, low volume, and it is still there on the ground, they’ve always taken the tack that, you know, if an Indian with a budget of 500 rupees a day wants to visit Andamans, who are we to stop him? And then they ended up creating a bunch of infrastructure for that. So, this in Andamans, specifically the LTC tourism was, and, you know, chasing after that and making sure they had facilities, that started the mass market move. And a similar thing could well happen in Lakshadweep. You know, when you have every Indian wanting to get across there and take, you know, their selfies, et cetera, and you end up with administration creating the infrastructure for that. So where is the mechanism to stop something like that from happening?

Specifically using the word pressure group because people like us you know, a Barefoot brand or a CGH or an Oberoi or an ITC would be all much more amenable to working with the groups like R-T-S-O-I, because they don’t want the flip side of it, which is to get a name for not putting environmental concerns upfront. So, I think, we need a two-pronged approach. One is to say, okay, fine certain tenders have gone out. How do we work with the people who have to implement them and make them as green as possible? And that is probably the most practical thing we can do. And secondly, I would say not just take it up at the policy level, but also drill down to the UT level and make sure, you know, what are the checks and balances once you get in this policy document?

How do you make sure that the Andamans experience doesn’t happen again, which is where the policy remains on paper, and the people who have to execute it anyway have got these wide-ranging powers where they can just ignore the overarching aim of that policy. The only two things that will be developed in the future is fisheries and tourism. We are seeing the effects of over fishery in Lakshadweep on our reefs. Again, most of it is going out for export. I am actually shocked that only 80% is going out in Lakshadweep. I thought the number would already be in the high nineties, but I am very sure it’s going to be in the high nineties, very, very soon.

They are taking resources out and tourism at least is a way to put it in, you know there’s a way to also make sure that given that you are going for such high-end luxury tourism, even an extra $50, a $100 a night, can take all the garbage out, for example, can also do a lot of good on the island. And, you know, there is a sustainable lifestyle. There, there is a local lifestyle over there. It’s been sustainable for them thus far, but there’s not everything happening that is right? And there’s a lot that could still be improved in the way they’re living their lives and the way they dispose of their waste. And, and maybe when these resorts come in and if they are given additional responsibilities to make sure that those islands also are properly disposing waste, et cetera and they’re part of that solution, then you could end up with a net non-negative kind of impact.

And when, when I am talking about us working with the resorts to come at two levels. One is during the build phase, when you’re making sure that, okay, if you have to build these in the lagoon, where you are actually locating them, what is happening in the build phase, that you are minimising the risks of damage in the lagoon itself. It is too late to say they, they shouldn’t be there. It is going to come there whether you like it or not.

And the second part is ongoing in the operational phase, and how do you make sure that they are making a positive impact on the island as a whole?

Jose Dominic

CGH Group, Kochi

Walking on that coral beach in the lagoon with, I thought the PM was sending a big signal of endorsement of that model of eco-friendly growth in Lakshadweep, and then with the rush on social media as never before in the history has happened, after that in India the islands have become the destination, become known.

Now, in 1988 when we went first, there was a strong policy in place, a strong direction in place. And so it was, first of all, there was carrying capacity drawn up of about 100 people as tourists on the island at any time. And then, how much power can be generated that is supplied by the government, how much water can be extracted and to reduce power consumption and to, and to avoid dredging of the lagoons from movement of heavy draught vessels and so on and so forth. And so, a model emerged where the advertised features of the resort called Bangaram Island Resort when it opened in 18 December, 1988, was the absence of telephone, television, newspaper, air conditioning, hot water room service, 24/7 restaurant, swimming pool, all absent and what was present was the pristine nature to enjoy. And that was a model positioned for a specific market.

Their response was extraordinary. People came, not despite, but because of that model.

Now, the other islands which are being developed have got 200, 300 rooms capacity. And what was, what was sacrosanct at that time was that all buildings, that any structures created should be invisible and everything built behind the tree line.

The question came up, should we not follow the Maldives example?  And it was unanimous, both the government, the authority and the entrepreneurs said, we should not spoil the island by dotting the lagoon with water villas. I equate that water villa on the lagoon to building, and which will of course fetch a fancy price of a thousand dollars a night. But I equate that with building in the Taj Mahal monument in the gardens, if you allowed people to build tourist cottages, they too will do. Come on, come on, a thousand dollars a night. Will you do that? It is extremely shocking and surprising that the regulators, the government, the administration has now invited tenders; it appears to me an administrative order suddenly just jumped to that as well as, as well as to build something in the lagoons.

The very reason for people to come there was the miracle of nature, which is a lagoon and the corals. And that is dotted with, with water villas, unimaginable that this could happen. And this, and I was just looking at asking others in, in the developed areas in the Pacific, there is a strong ban against such constructions. But, of course, what has happened is they have got thousand and one islands, and then tendered out to big brands from around the globe who came there and they were given 20 years, it was slash and burn. Do what you want? Make what you can, then move on. They have other islands they can develop. We don’t have that luxury.

But I think what is at stake, are rare, very rare and precious. India does not need Lakshadweep to make India a developed country or to reach a trillion-dollar economy. On the other hand, India’s stand should be to preserve and protect the pristine quality of the islands as well as to build capacity of the local islanders. The resort was run practically, although we happened to be from the mainland, but it was 95% by the Islanders; it was their idea, their ideology, so local and so environmentally conscious and so socially beneficial. These criteria are, are timeless and, and, and they need to be. We cannot say that, that it (new hotels) has now been tendered and now let them happen.

Rakesh Mathur

Founding Member & Honorary President, Responsible Tourism Society Of India

I would like to begin by making some propositions for consideration by that section of the Tourism and Administrative Fraternity, which is actively promoting the setting up of Sea Bungalows in Andaman Nicobar and Lakshdweep islands. Some have even gone to the extent of saying that “this  will help us in achieving our target of being a 5 trillion economy “ by 2025 Really??? So let us then do the following:

  • Erect Tourism Bunglows inside designated Wildlife Forests. We will be able to generate at least Rs. One lakh per night every night except when the Forests are closed.
  • Erect a few Bunglows in the inner lawns of Taj Mahal. Another similar money spinner. Or even Humayus tomb for that matter!!
  • Do away with the 300 meter law in coastal sea fronts. Super hotels with come up on the beach fetching premium revenues

We could could go on and on and go about ruining our natural habitat and our heritage for the sake of seemingly fuelling economic growth.

First and foremost the sea is the property of commons and cannot be encroached upon.

The Corals are live and are akin to Forest life. Any intrusion will slowly destroy them. Any marine biology scientist will tell you this. Several studies have been done in this regard

Damage has already been done in Andaman Nicobar. We need to stop and reverse that.

We strongly believe that any development in these prestine environments should be behind and below the tree line! We can create similar unique experiences.

Maldives can’t be compared to us. They have no options. They depend on this for their survival. We don’t.

Even Australia with the Great Barrier Reef hasn’t ventured into this.

We also understand there is a report that should the current rate of global warming continue, all these islands shall be under water by 2050. 26 years left. So what is the feasibility?

So let us not run after short term profits but focus on conserving our natural heritage.

RTSOI will endeavour to ensure that our message reaches the highest decision makers to present a balanced view.

Rohan Arthur

Marine Biologist based in Lakshadweep

We are going to have to mitigate the effects of climate change, both in terms of its insidious effects, as well as when it comes to its catastrophic effects that occasionally might happen, like storms, like the decline of fresh water, like disease. All of these things are going to be important. We will all need, also need, and this is something that needs to be said. We also might need to think about strategies of migration of moving when that, when the eventuality occurs, we might need to have to. And a, a coherent climate strategy needs to incorporate that. We need to support existing resilience. And I, you know, I I was really enthused by what was said about supporting local institutions and celebrating local ways of life, because that’s exactly what we need. We need to strengthen the local institutions that exist already.

We need to celebrate the local ways of life, which are actually fairly climate resilient. And we need to shift the needle on climate change because we need a paradigm shift. We need global pressures on climate policy to shift as well. How can tourism support this transformation? Can we influence thinking on climate adaptation? Can we promote a culturally relevant low-level tourism that supports local institutions? And can we embrace climate sensitive approaches to tourism?


Formed in 2008, at the behest of the Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India, the founding members of Responsible Tourism Society of India comprised of widely experienced, eco-sensitive professionals from the Tourism industry, state government departments of tourism and forests, wildlife conservation, NGOs and also Members of Parliament.

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