India to Link Thailand, Singapore to Andamans

PORT BLAIR, India ~ India has said it will try to link Singapore and Thailand to the Andamans by air by March 2008 but added the archipelago needed a makeover to sell itself to tourists.

The announcement comes amid an unprecedented increase in the number of arrivals by low-budget domestic tourists to the Andamans, where most of the 36 inhabited islands are now partially open to visitors.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said at the weekend that the Indian Ocean archipelago, mauled by the tsunami in 2004, could outshine destinations in Thailand and Singapore if it were refurbished.

“There is not much difference between Phuket, Bangkok and the Andamans but more tourism-related facilities are needed here,” Patel said in capital Port Blair, which upgraded its airport to international standards six months ago.

Most European tourists to India avoid the island chain because of its remote location and due to the stifling presence of the Indian military.

“We now intend to link Andamans to Singapore, Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand within six months by air and we are certain we can match their tourism industries,” Patel said.

Five percent of 80,000 visitors to the Andamans so far in 2007 have been overseas holidaymakers. The modest target is 150,000 arrivals for the entire year.

Thailand expects nearly 15 million international tourists in 2007 while Singapore, which welcomed 9.7 million foreign tourists last year, hopes to see a growth of 7.5 percent during 2007, according to industry forecasts.

“Its achievable,” the Indian minister said, but prodded the military to end its control over airports and sea lanes linking the isles that run from near Myanmar to close to Indonesia to the outside world.

The local tourism industry says visitors to the Andamans are low-paid government workers, which harms the archipelago’s image and damages its environment.

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