Lakshadweep: Are the ‘alternative Maldives’ of India capable of accommodating large-scale tourism?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Indian territory of Lakshadweep earlier this month caused an unanticipated rift that strained relations with the Maldives, a neighbor. Additionally, it sparked a spike in tourism to the small chain of islands, which has alarmed many residents and ecological specialists.
During his visit to Lakshadweep, a federally governed territory situated north of the Maldives in the Arabian Sea, Mr. Modi revealed a number of development initiatives and posted pictures of himself snorkeling and relaxing on the island’s beaches.
His remarks were disparaged by three deputy ministers from the Maldives, which infuriated Indians on social media and led many to promote Lakshadweep as a substitute travel destination.
It appears to be effective because last week saw an all-time increase in Google searches for Lakshadweep, a topic that is rarely featured in primetime news. The biggest online travel agency in India, MakeMyTrip, reported that following Mr. Modi’s visit, searches for Lakshadweep on its website increased by 3,400%.
The government administrator for the area, Praful Patel, whose divisive policies sparked “unprecedented protests” from Lakshadweep residents a few years ago, has welcomed the spotlight.
“Lakshadweep’s natural beauty offers countless opportunities for the tourism industry to grow. He told news agency PTI, “The administration has started a number of initiatives, including adding more rooms.”
By 2026, the Tata Group hopes to have two “world-class” resorts operating on two of the 36 inhabited islands that make up the Lakshadweep archipelago, which is spread across 32 square kilometers (12.3 square miles). The sole airline operating flights to Lakshadweep at the moment has begun operating extra flights, and another is planning to commence operations shortly.
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However, experts claim that due to its tiny size and delicate ecosystem, Lakshadweep—famous for its stunning silver beaches, crystal-blue oceans, and coral islands—cannot be developed into a major tourist destination like the Maldives. Many residents also argue that what they really need is not large-scale development plans that will upend their way of life, but rather responsible tourism in which they are stakeholders.
According to a government website, “the main occupation of the people is fishing, coconut cultivation, and coir twisting,” tourism is “an emerging industry” in this area.
There were only two means to get to the archipelago prior to the start of extra flights: ships from the mainland landed every four days, and a 72-seater aircraft run by Alliance Air flew daily from Kochi in Kerala state to the only airport in Lakshadweep on Agatti island.
Administration-issued permits also set a limit on entry to Lakshadweep.
“The development of the islands is hindered greatly by transportation, lodging, and land-based infrastructure,” claims Nationalist Congress Party MP PP Mohammed Faizal, the lone representative for the 70,000 or so residents of Lakshadweep.
“Bangaram, the island on which PM Modi stayed, has only 36 rooms [for tourists],” he claims.
As a result, cruises account for a large portion of the region’s present tourism industry. Guests from ships stationed off the archipelago see the islands during the day before spending the night on board.
NCP Lakshadweep On April 6, 2022, in New Delhi, Member of Parliament for the Lok Sabha Mohammed Faizal held a press conference at his home following a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
GETTY IMAGES, THE IMAGE SOURCE
Image caption: Mohammed Faizal (left), the lone MP for Lakshadweep, claims the islands are unsuitable for mass tourists.
On the other hand, there are hundreds of lodging options in the Maldives for visitors, including resorts, hotels, and guesthouses.
“What the Maldives have in terms of beaches and water and undersea sports, Lakshadweep can provide. But we still have a long way to go in terms of infrastructure,” Mr. Faizal continues.
He continues by saying that any progress will require resolving the disagreements between the islanders and the authorities.
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Lakshadweep is home to 96% Muslim residents, and since Mr. Patel, a former leader of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, was named the island’s administrator in 2021, tensions have arisen.
Since then, he has unveiled a number of divisive policies, including as eliminating meat from school lunch menus and creating a draft bill that would grant the administration broad authority to seize territory.
The BBC contacted the collector of Lakshadweep, Mr. Patel’s office, and its tourist and information departments by phone and email, but it did not receive a response.
Mr. Patel has defended the policies of his administration in interviews, claiming that the “development of Lakshadweep” was his primary goal.
Travel business owner on Agatti island Althaf Hussain reports a 30–40% increase in inquiries from potential tourists since Mr. Modi’s visit.
Although Mr. Hussain would welcome more guests, he believes that opportunities should go to small business owners in the community rather than only large corporations. In the future, he hopes to open his own resort on Agatti.
“As these projects come in, we might receive minor tasks, but that’s not what we want. Not only do we want to provide labor, but we also want to own these projects,” he declares.
Island of Kalpeni, Lakshadweep
GETTY IMAGES, THE IMAGE SOURCE
Last week, search interest in Lakshadweep reached a record high.
Climate change issues and livelihood concerns will need to be balanced in any development in Lakshadweep, according to experts.
According to marine biologist and coral reef ecologist Rohan Arthur, who has studied the Lakshadweep islands since 1996, “the ecological integrity of her coral reefs, lagoons, and beaches depends on the long-term stability of her islands.” “These form the vital ‘ecological infrastructure’ that holds the atoll together – quite literally.”
However, he claims that during the last few decades, this region of the Indian Ocean has seen a number of devastating heatwaves that have impacted the coral reefs’ health. These heatwaves are linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather phenomena, which is characterized by a warming of the ocean surface.
He fears “to think what it will do to Lakshadweep reefs” because an even stronger ENSO is predicted for this year.
He goes on to say that unplanned or piecemeal development that ignores climate resilience would only worsen Lakshadweep’s already dire situation regarding habitability.
What then would sustainable travel in this location entail?
Experts and locals believe that the archipelago requires a model that prioritizes the needs of its people and its fragile nature over luxury tourism, which has a disproportionately large carbon footprint.
According to Mr. Faizal, the islands already have a “bible for development” in the form of a proposal made by the Justice Ravindran Commission, which was constituted by the Supreme Court. The Federal Environment Ministry gave it their blessing in 2015.
Mr. Faizal disputes Mr. Patel’s assertion that the plan has been carried out, arguing that the administration rarely abides by the court’s directives.
The Integrated Island Management Plan suggests restricting tourism projects to deserted islands, prohibiting dredging and sand mining to safeguard lagoons, coral reefs, and other ecosystems, and implementing development projects only after consulting with elected local self-government authorities.
Additionally, visitors would have to arrive with a more responsible attitude.
According to Mr. Arthur’s vision, a trip to Lakshadweep would involve learning about the region’s rich cultural past, consuming sustainably sourced food prepared using regional recipes, exploring the reef with local guides and divers, and volunteering to help ensure these special places survive for a long time.
“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,” according to him.