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University researcher achieves a first in study of Andamans

A University of Kent academic has carried out ground-breaking research into one of the world’s most remote and inaccessible island groups. Maharaj Vijay Reddy’s study of tourist development in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has also seen him achieve a rare distinction, as few outsiders have ever been granted permission to carry out research in the territory.

Located in the Indian Ocean, more than 1,000 kilometres from the mainland of India, the islands are home to some of the world’s most secretive aboriginal tribes, whose privacy is strictly safeguarded by the Indian government. The territory consists of 572 islands – of which only approximately 38 are actually inhabited – and about 90 per cent of the land is covered in dense rainforest. Formerly under British colonial rule, the islands also have a strong Indian military presence.

A research associate at the University of Kent at Medway’s tourism research centre, CENTICA, Mr Reddy said the islands presented a challenge he couldn’t resist. ‘Very little information about tourism in these islands had already been published, so I really had to throw myself into a lot of active research,’ he said. ‘It is difficult for outsiders to carry out this kind of work, due to the presence of the Indian military and the policy of the Indian government in protecting the tribes.

‘It was a difficult task even to reach the majority of the extremely remote islands, especially as some of the sea routes are turbulent. For example, the return journey to the Great Nicobar Island during a visit in 2003 took eight continuous days by ship.

‘Very few people have taken the challenge on, but despite the difficulties it was exciting to be carrying out such original research.’

CENTICA – the Centre for Tourism in Islands and Coastal Areas – was launched at the Medway campus in October 2006. The centre is led by Dr Mark Hampton, who also runs the University’s Tourism Management degree course.

Mr Reddy achieved another rare feat following the tsunami of 26 December 2004, which claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people on the islands. Since the Nicobar group of islands are official tribal reserves where neither tourists nor researchers have been allowed, the entry of international aid agencies – as well as foreign media – was severely restricted.

Notices placed by the government reinforced the message, with warnings of jail terms for encroachment into reserved territories.

Having been commissioned by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – to put together a report on the impact of the tsunami, however, Mr Reddy once more gained rare access to parts of the islands in 2005. ‘The tsunami made the islands famous,’ he said. ‘The impact was truly devastating, especially in the Nicobar Islands. Some parts were actually broken into two or three new islands. Great areas of homes and natural vegetation were simply washed away. A few of my friends were among those who lost their lives.’

Now back at the University of Kent, Mr Reddy is continuing his work into the lasting impact of the tsunami on the islands’ growing tourism industry and on the communities now rebuilding their lives.

His research work is also helping to select ‘world heritage sites’ in the islands – such as Ross Island, the former administrative headquarters in the days of British rule – which can then be marketed as tourist attractions. Mr Reddy’s studies will also help with the official conservation of these historic sites.

Nick Ellwood | alfa
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