Southeast Asia Sold Its Soul; Let’s Go to North Sentinel Island!
Who’s heard of North Sentinel Island? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but it is possibly the most interesting island in the world, and chances are you’ll never get to go there. Here are some of the few facts known about this place:
Located in India’s Andaman Islands, its inhabitants may have lived in almost complete isolation for the last 60,000 years.
Nearly all attempts to contact them have resulted in being chased away and shot at with arrows. They even fired arrows at a helicopter.
Their language is completely different from any of the surrounding tribes.
They seemed to pre-empt the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and retreated to safety.
No one knows anything about their day to day lives, they live in dense jungle and there could be anywhere from 50 – 500 people living there.
The Indian government has banned contact with the Sentinelese and has set up a 3 mile buffer zone around the island.
So, who wants to go there? Apart from almost guaranteed murder on arrival, I’m pretty sure most people’s curiously has been piqued, and a visit there (assuming they become friendly) would probably be on a lot of people’s bucket lists. However, a quick bit of research into another Andaman Island tribe, the Jarawa, shows that contact with the outside world before they are ready would be disastrous for the Sentinelese.
The Jarawa were almost as untouched by the outside world as the Sentinelese, until they recently started coming out of the jungles and interacting with settlers and tourists on South and Middle Andaman Islands. Alcohol, marijuana, prostitution and disease has since ripped this tribe apart, and their numbers have dwindled to only a couple of hundred. The main cause of this was the construction of a highway right through their land, which has recently been the location of human safaris – car loads of tourists driving through, taking photos and even making them dance for food.
It’s a pretty extreme example, but this constant need to see something new and get away from the tourist trail might not be the best idea.
A popular complaint among tourists is that there are too many tourists. Places that were once authentic apparently become ruined because the masses descend on them, so off we go looking for the next destination. No tourist in Thailand should be complaining about too many tourists. Not even people that went there in the ’70s and ’80s should be complaining now, because they effectively built the highway to the Thailand we know today.
The tourist trail has been established, and it will always be added to, but is there any need to speed up that process so we can feel we are getting something more authentic and real? Should we be ditching the hill tribes who have come to rely on tourist money, only to hook another one up to the pump?
People are always going to want to travel to beautiful and unique places, but purposely seeking out undiscovered places while denigrating the ones we’ve already laid waste to can’t be the right way to go about it.
Take Koh Phi Phi’s tourism explosion after The Beach was filmed there. 15 years on and it’s an unstoppable tourist machine, and there is no reversing that. While it might be more interesting to escape the crowds and find the next new island paradise, is that the best thing for the region?
I recently read a post about Vang Vieng, Laos, and how it has changed. The author seemed to be advocating ditching Vang Vieng and looking to the surrounding areas for a more real experience. I think that is bad idea, as you would basically be deserting a ship that needs you to stop it from sinking, only to destabilise the next one you jump on. Vang Vieng is now a tourist town and there is no turning back from that. People have invested their futures in the tourism industry and they need to be supported, not passed off as too common or touristy by travellers thinking they are doing good (particularly after the government shut down all the dodgy stuff – the reason a lot of people visited in the first place).
Will anyone ever get to go to North Sentinel Island? Who knows, but the answer to that question should lie with the Sentinelese themselves. There is no right or wrong answer to any of this. The way tourism effects people, culture and the environment varies the world over, and some places deal with those effects better than others. I’m not saying don’t seek out new and interesting places, it’s one of the best things about travelling, but also don’t abandon the tourist trail, as we have made so many people rely on it. We should also be aware that as soon as we bring our cameras and money somewhere new, that place changes forever – but is it for the better?
FURTHER READING: Someone did just travel to North Sentinel Island and got killed for their trouble!
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