Lakshadweep: Can India’s ‘alternative Maldives’ handle mass tourism?


Modi in Lakshadweep
Image caption,Mr Modi shared several photos from his Lakshadweep trip earlier this month

By Meryl Sebastian

BBC News, Kochi

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Indian archipelago Lakshadweep triggered an unexpected row that soured ties with neighbouring Maldives. It also set off a surge in tourist interest in the small island chain that has worried ecological experts and many locals.

On his visit to Lakshadweep – a federally administered territory that lies in the Arabian Sea, to the north of Maldives – Mr Modi had announced a slew of development projects and shared photos of himself snorkelling and enjoying its beaches.

Three Maldivian deputy ministers made derogatory comments about him, sparking outrage on Indian social media and prompting many to highlight Lakshadweep as an alternative tourist destination.

It seems to be working – Google searches for Lakshadweep, which doesn’t often make it to primetime news, jumped to an all-time high last week. MakeMyTrip, India’s largest online travel company, said it saw a 3,400% increase in searches for Lakshadweep on its platform after Mr Modi’s trip.

Praful Patel, the region’s government administrator whose controversial policies set off “unprecedented protests” from locals in Lakshadweep a couple of years ago, has welcomed the attention.

“The natural beauty of Lakshadweep carries immense possibilities for development of the tourism sector. The administration has launched several initiatives, including adding more rooms,” he told news agency PTI.

The Tata Group has announced plans to open two “world-class” resorts on two Lakshadweep islands by 2026 (the archipelago has 36 islands – only 10 are inhabited – spread over 32 sq km (12.3 sq miles)). The only airline that currently flies to Lakshadweep has started additional flights and another plans to launch a service soon.

But experts say Lakshadweep – famed for its picturesque silver beaches, crystal-blue waters and coral islands – cannot be developed into a massive tourist destination like the Maldives because of its small size and fragile ecology. Many locals also say that what they need is responsible tourism in which they are stakeholders, not large-scale development plans that will overturn their way of life.

“The main occupation of the people is fishing, coconut cultivation and coir twisting,” according to a government website, which calls tourism “an emerging industry” here.

Until the launch of additional flights, there were only two ways to reach the archipelago – a 72-seater plane operated by Alliance Air that flew daily from Kochi in Kerala state to Lakshadweep’s only airport on Agatti island, and ships from the mainland that arrived every four days.

Entry to Lakshadweep is also limited by permits issued by the administration.

“Transport, accommodation and land-based infrastructure are a huge bottleneck [to developing the islands],” says PP Mohammed Faizal from the Nationalist Congress Party, who is the only MP representing around 70,000 people in Lakshadweep.

“Bangaram, the island on which PM Modi stayed, has only 36 rooms [for tourists],” he says.

So, much of the territory’s current tourism operates through cruises – visitors from ships docked off the archipelago tour the islands during the day and return to the vessel to spend the night.

NCP lakshadweep Member of Parliament Lok Sabha Mohammed Faizal address a press conference after meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at his residence on April 6, 2022 in New Delhi
Image caption,Lakshadweep’s lone MP, Mohammed Faizal (left), says the islands is not equipped for large-scale tourism

In contrast, Maldives has hundreds of options for tourists to stay, including resorts, hotels and guesthouses.

“What Maldives has, Lakshadweep can offer by way of beaches, underwater and water sports activities. But infrastructure-wise, we have miles to travel,” Mr Faizal says.

He adds that for any development to take place, the differences between the administration and the islanders will need to be settled.

Ninety-six percent of Lakshadweep’s population is Muslim and the island has witnessed tensions after Mr Patel – a former leader of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – was appointed its administrator in 2021.

He has since announced controversial measures including removing meat from school meal menus and a draft law that gives the administration sweeping powers to take over land.

The BBC has phoned and emailed queries to Mr Patel’s office, Lakshadweep’s collector and its tourism and information departments but did not receive responses.

In interviews, Mr Patel has defended his administration’s policies, saying his only agenda was the “development of Lakshadweep“.

Althaf Hussain, who runs a travel agency on Agatti island, says enquiries from prospective tourists have gone up by 30-40% since Mr Modi’s visit.

While he would welcome more visitors, Mr Hussain – who hopes to set up his own resort on Agatti in future – says that opportunities should go to local entrepreneurs and not just big businesses.

“We may get small jobs as these projects come in but that’s not what we want. We want to have ownership in these projects and not just contribute labour,” he says.

Kalpeni Island, Lakshadweep
Image caption,Search interest in Lakshadweep jumped to an all-time high last week

Experts say any development in Lakshadweep will need to balance livelihood concerns with climate change fears.

“The long-term stability of Lakshadweep islands depends on the ecological integrity of her coral reefs, lagoons and beaches,” says Rohan Arthur, a marine biologist and coral reef ecologist who has researched the islands since 1996. “These form the vital ‘ecological infrastructure’ that holds the atoll together – quite literally.”

But he says that over the past few decades, this part of the Indian Ocean has experienced a series of catastrophic heatwaves, linked to the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather phenomenon (a warming of the ocean surface) which has affected the health of the coral reefs .

With an even bigger ENSO expected this year, he dreads “to think what it will do to Lakshadweep reefs”.

Unplanned or piecemeal development that does not account for climate resilience would only add to the brewing habitability crisis in Lakshadweep, he adds.

So what would sustainable tourism look like here?

Instead of luxury tourism that leaves a disproportionately high carbon footprint, the archipelago needs a model that puts its fragile ecology and the needs of its people at the centre, experts and locals agree.

The islands already have a “bible for development”, Mr Faizal says, in the form of a plan put forward by the Supreme Court-appointed Justice Ravindran Commission. It was approved by the federal environment ministry in 2015.

Mr Patel says the plan has been implemented but Mr Faizal disagrees and claims the administration hardly ever follows the guidelines laid down by court.

The Integrated Island Management Plan recommends the implementation of development projects in consultation with elected local self-government bodies, a ban on dredging and sand mining to protect lagoons, corals and other ecosystems, and tourism projects only in uninhabited islands.

Tourists would also be required to visit with a more responsible mindset.

Mr Arthur puts forward a vision where a trip to Lakshadweep would include visitors understanding its deep cultural history, eating food that is sustainably sourced and cooked with local recipes, exploring the reef with local guides and divers, and becoming ambassadors for the long-term survival of these unique spaces.

“It may be possible to imagine a tourism that supports and respects local economies with tourists getting to participate in the life of the village,” he says.

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