Great Nicobar is the very last island of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. It is the largest of the Nicobar group of islands, spanning 921km2 and is home to about 9000 people. A large portion of the island is covered by dense forests which are home to a variety of endemic biodiversity including the Nicobar megapode, the Nicobar tree shrew and the Nicobar long-tailed macaque. The most common visitors to the island are naturalists, birders, and researchers.
This huge island is a slow-paced, pristine location that is home to a close-knit community of individuals who have made their living there over several generations. The working population is split into groups that run small grocery shops, eateries, service centres, or own coconut plantations. A significant group that is present on the island is government employees. These individuals are stationed at the Naval, Coast Guard, and Army regiments. Other government employees include those working for the BSNL Telecom Service, the Post Office, and the State Transport Service.
- Permissions: Indian citizens do not require prior permission to visit the island of Great Nicobar. Foreign nationals need to visit the Assistant Commisioner’s office in Port Blair before making their travel reservations. Once on the island, tourists need to meet officials from the Forest Department in Campbell Bay to arrange visits to Biosphere Reserve and Galathea National Park.
- Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve and Galathea National Park: For naturalists and birders alike, both of these places hold great significance in terms of the species of trees, animals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. To enter these areas, one needs to inform the Forest Department in Campbell Bay and seek prior permission. Individuals and groups are both allowed to visit, and guides can be arranged for the nature trail in the Biosphere Reserve by speaking to the Range Forest Officer in the Forest Department.
- Indira Point: Indira Point is a key aspect of the Great Nicobar Island tourism. The southernmost tip of the country, it has been renamed in honour of Indira Gandhi. There is a lighthouse guides ships travelling to Malaysia and Malacca through India. While this point was reachable via road, the tsunami inundated the entire area and a part of the lighthouse owing to which this area currently cannot be traversed to. The government is in the process of rebuilding this road, and this will allow travelers to visit the historical place shortly.
The fastest way to Great Nicobar from Port Blair is by air. The only aircraft tourists can travel by is a helicopter since the runway is not long enough for passenger airplanes to land. The rates vary for islanders, Indian non-islanders, and foreign nationals. The cost per ticket for Indian nationals who are not from the islands of Andaman and Nicobar is INR 13400. However, every island on the way from Port Blair to Great Nicobar has a specific quota and it is therefore difficult for tourists to find a seat on the helicopter. Helicopters fly to and from Great Nicobar twice or thrice a week. For foreign nationals, it is necessary to inquire at the counter for the exact cost of the ticket. Tickets have to be applied for on the morning before the date of travel from the gate at the Secretariat and the list of selected passengers will be put up the same evening. Remember, the office remains closed on Saturdays and Sundays so for travel on Monday, the application will have to be submitted on Friday.
Although longer, taking a government ship to Great Nicobar is a surer way to travel. The easiest way to get your tickets is to visit the Directorate of Shipping Service (DSS) office in Port Blair. There are a number of ships of different sizes and facilities that are available based on your budget. The average cost for an Indian non-islander is between INR 2400 and INR 3000 for a seat in a first class cabin. Bunks cost approximately INR 800 – 1200 and deluxe suites, which are the most spacious and comfortable seats- about INR 2800-3200. Although more reliable than the helicopter, ships that ply between the islands are approximately once in ten days. The journey from Port Blair to Great Nicobar takes 24-30 hours depending on the weather. The frequency depends most often on the weather; the stormier and rainier the weather, the less frequent they become. For further information, you can contact the DSS at the following numbers:Contact number: (03192) 232528 / 232742
Tribes of Great Nicobar
The population of Great Nicobar is largely comprised of indigenous people and settlers- individuals from the mainland whose families settled here well before and around the time of India’s independence. There are two indigenous Nicobar island tribes– the Shompen and the Nicobarese. The Shompen tribe is one that does not interact much with the urban settlements of the island. Designated as a Scheduled Tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, they live in the forest areas of the island and follow a hunter-gatherer way of living. They engage in barter with different communities – both, the settlers and the Nicobarese.
The Nicobarese is a term used to refer to the dominant tribes of the Nicobar Islands. These tribes are divided by island and the central location for this group of tribes is Car Nicobar. Although each tribe has its own language, the Nicobarese are all familiar with the Car Nicobarese language which is descended from the Roman script. Before the tsunami, the Nicobarese followed animism – worshipping animals and natural symbols on which they depended. However, after the tsunami, most of them have converted to Christianity. Some of the others who are still dependent on the forests, still follow animism.
Post-tsunami, lifestyles have changed completely for both the tribes and they have become more urbanized. For the Nicobarese especially, their livelihoods have changed from being forest dependent to more market centric. Both tribes have been relocated and their new houses are made of materials that are different from the natural resources that they used earlier.
Tribal tourism is prohibited and individuals are only allowed to interact with them for research, after seeking prior permission from the Tribal Council.
- Cost per Day
Tourists can stay only in Campbell Bay and travel to other parts of the island from here.
Accommodation has to be booked in the Panchayat Tourism Guest House at Campbell Bay. At the Panchayat Tourism Guest House, the cost per bed per night is INR 400. Accommodation can be booked prior to travel by calling the concerned guesthouse. It is also a good practice to confirm the cost before travelling.
One can do so by calling the following numbers: Panchayat Tourism Guesthouse: 03193 264267 / +91 9474229928.
For government officials, there is also the option to stay at the APWD (Andaman Public Works Department) Guesthouse. Here, the cost for a standard non-AC room is INR 500 and INR 800 for a standard AC room.
The average cost per meal at any of the eateries is INR 150. Chaat varies from INR 10 to INR 50.
The cost for a trip in an autorickshaw varies depending on the time of travel. On days when there is a ship arriving, the cost could range anywhere from INR 100- INR 300. On other days, the cost would be within INR 100 per trip. Since this is an island that is not visited by many people, the locals do change their rates with no prior warning and at no fixed rate.The cost of a bus ride from the first stop (Campbell Bay) to the last (Shastri Nagar) is INR 35 for the 35km distance. The rates for the areas in between are calculated based on the distance travelled.The cost of hiring a two wheeler or four-wheeler can be arranged in advance from Port Blair from different travel companies in Aberdeen Bazaar. However, the cost for each varies and would have to be inquired about in advance.
- Visit the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve: In 2013, the Great Nicobar Biosphere (GNBR) was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in order to foster sustainable development with the assistance of the local communities. Great Nicobar itself forms as a part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot and the reserve covers over 85% of the island. This reserve is home to several endemic species that are found only in the Nicobar Islands including the Nicobar megapode (Megapodius nicobariensis), the edible-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus), the Nicobar long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis umbrosa), Nicobar tree shrew, and the giant robber crab (or coconut crab, Birgus latro). Within the Biosphere Reserve are two designated national parks – the Campbell Bay National Park and the Galathea National Park. Individuals and groups can go on a nature trail hike, which takes approximately three hours, and get a chance to see several bird species. Guides can be arranged via the Forest Department in advance.
- Visit Galathea National Park: This national park is a part of the tropical and sub-tropical forests of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. In addition to the species mentioned earlier, the Nicobar pigeon, an endemic species is also found here and draws birders from around the country. Other species that can be seen include the giant leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), Malayan box turtle, and the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) which started coming to the island only after the tsunami. These however are visible only at specific times of the year.
- Relax on beaches or swim in the ocean: There are several beaches that can be visited on the island however only one is suitable for safe swimming. This can be found out after arriving in Great Nicobar. This beach also permits snorkeling but equipment must be carried from the mainland or Port Blair as there are no rental shops available.
- Go Birdwatching: In addition to the birds seen in the reserve and national parks, the general areas of Campbell Bay and surrounding places support large numbers of different bird species, ranging from waders to raptors.
When to visit?
Like most tropical areas, Great Nicobar receives heavy rainfall throughout the year. The months with the least rainfall (December to April) are ideal to enjoy the best weather and outdoor activities.
Great Nicobar is divided into multiple smaller towns, with Campbell Bay as its main area of activity. There are two main roads – North South Road and East West Road – that connect the entire island. Within Campbell Bay, one can travel using local auto-rickshaws. To go from one part of the island to another, there are local government buses that ply regularly from Campbell Bay (0km) to Shastri Nagar (35km), with stops at each town in-between. If you hold a two-wheeler license, it is also possible for you to hire one with or without a gear to help you move around during your stay. In addition, four-wheelers can also be hired but are quite expensive. In most cases, cars are required only to go to Galathea National Park or the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve to where buses do not directly ply.
However, the town of Campbell Bay is small enough to be covered by walk. So if you love going on long walks or simply want a breath of fresh air, put on your walking shoes and get going!
Where to eat?
Meals can be eaten at the Tourism Guesthouse or at Suruchi Restaurant. There are also local eateries as well as a few chaat places at the Jetty Market and Zero Market. One of the most frequented eateries is the one run by Mr. Simachalam right opposite the Tourism Guesthouse.
Owling – If you enjoy birdwatching in any capacity, the Nicobar Scops Owl is a true treat for the eyes. This small owl is endemic to the Nicobars and can be spotted in several places in and near Campbell Bay. The only other owl found on Great Nicobar is the Brown Hawk Owl, also known as the Brown Boobook. While there are no bird guides on the island, it is fairly easy to check where these owls can be spotted and what times they are usually seen at by using citizen science databases like eBird.
Enjoy the natural night lights – A rare sight anywhere in the world, the beaches of Great Nicobar light up at night, in the literal sense of the word! Bioluminescent phytoplankton that reside on the beach often light up the shore when waves crash after nightfall. The woods surrounding some of the beaches are also inhabited by fireflies that light up trees like Christmas lights.
- Travelling and tickets: The infrequency of the ships plying to and from Great Nicobar could be a damper on your plans if you do not plan sufficiently ahead of time. Make sure you have a few days’ buffer in place if you intend to fly back to the mainland from Port Blair as soon as you return from Great Nicobar. If you have plans to explore Andaman by visiting Neil, Havelock, and Ross, you might want to give yourself at least 7-10 days before booking your flight tickets.
- Food and money: Other than one or two shops, none of the eateries or stores accept card payments. There are two ATMs in Campbell Bay – Co-operative Bank and Syndicate Bank. However, there are no fixed schedules for when money is filled in them. It is therefore best for you to carry sufficient cash in hand for the duration of your stay.
- Internet and connectivity: BSNL is currently the sole service provider on the island. The connectivity is highly dependent on the weather. Network fluctuations are common and rains and stormy weather will affect the ease with which one can make calls. When it comes to the internet, there are some parts of the island that will allow 2G connections, sufficient to use WhatsApp. However, for browsing or emails, one can visit one of the three internet cafes that are situated in the market areas of Campbell Bay.
How long to stay? / Suggested Itinerary
Unlike the Andaman Islands, Nicobar Island tourism is not very developed. It is still in the beginning stages, with a lot of the government’s initiatives focusing on developing facilities for the local citizens after the disastrous effects of the 2004 tsunami before turning the attention to tourism. When planning a trip to Great Nicobar, it is important to keep in mind the frequency of ships – a factor that is largely influenced by the weather conditions. Spending about a week to ten days on this slow-paced island would be more than enough to explore and indulge in all that you want.
- Choose the right network: The first and most important thing to keep in mind is the network. BSNL is the only service provider that works on the island. In the case that you are from a part of India other than Kolkata, it is best to get the sim card from your city. Residents of Kolkata can also purchase their sim cards from the BSNL head office in Port Blair.
- Carry enough petty cash: Secondly, make sure to withdraw enough money in Port Blair and carry it to Great Nicobar because there are only two ATMs on the island, and do not get filled at regular times.
- Be prepared for rain: Even in the driest months, there can be sudden bouts of heavy rain. Make sure to carry sufficient rain clothes and appropriate footwear that will protect you from the weather.
- Stay safe from bites: Since Great Nicobar is a hot and humid area, mosquitoes thrive. It is therefore important to carry sufficient amounts of mosquito repellent or buy some at the local markets.
- How is the network connectivity?
With BSNL as the only service provider catering to the entirety of the Nicobar Islands population, there are several issues that are often faced. However, within the next year, the network is expected to improve with the laying of a submarine cable connecting Great Nicobar to Chennai.
- How do we interact with the tribals?
The tribal groups mostly keep to themselves, not interacting much with the mainstream populations. Some portions of the Nicobarese live in the urban area and are employed in a variety of government sectors. However, tourists are not allowed to interact with them. In order to interact with tribes who are not assimilated into mainstream society for research purposes, a Tribal Permit needs to be acquired from the Tribal Council.
- What is the lifestyle like?
The community of Great Nicobar is one that lives in peace and quiet. The people are extremely friendly and helpful, and do not let you feel like a visitor. Every day, shops remain closed from 12pm – 3pm for a lunch break.
- What language is most common?
The most common language spoken by the entire population is Hindi. Two other languages that are spoken by large populations on the island are Tamil and Bengali.
- How does one move around on the island?
Within Campbell Bay, which is the main town, it is fairly easy to navigate from one place to another on foot. To reach other parts of the island, one can travel by bus or hire a vehicle.
- What are the permissions required?
Indian citizens require no prior permissions before coming to Great Nicobar. To visit Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve and Galathea National Park, visitors have to inform the District Forest Officer at the Forest Department located in Campbell Bay.
- What is the food cuisine that is available?
Everything from dosas and idlis to parathas and rotis are available in Campbell Bay. The other towns do have eateries, but are much smaller and usually need about an hour’s notice to prepare food. The shops are well-stocked with a variety of snacks and juices and are conveniently located. One can also enjoy drinking coconut water every day from the market area!
- How safe is travelling to Great Nicobar?
Travelling to Great Nicobar by ship or helicopter is very safe. These are both routes that are often traversed by government officials as well as researchers coming to the island for research.