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Growing at the rate of 12-15 per cent per annum globally, cruise tourism is fast emerging as a new marketable commodity/product. Cruise ships are like moving townships studded with state of the art facilities and a variety of recreational activities. The idea is fast catching, as journey on board cruise liners is not only pleasurable, but also comparatively free from the hassle of packing and unpacking at multiple destinations. The cruise industry in India received its biggest boost upon the arrival of the SuperStar Libra of Star Cruises in 2006 – 07 when she was home ported in Mumbai.

Currently, there are more than 15 ocean cruise liners and river cruise companies with significant presence in the country offering diverse destinations and attractive offers from time to time to lure the Indian traveller. Experts believe that in the near future, India will emerge as a significant source market for cruises world over. Cruise liners are launching additional vessels to cater to the increasing passenger capacity and to maintain its product pricing in order to remain in business. Cruises are no longer considered the privilege of the rich and the elderly as more and more young tourists are seen booking cruise holidays.

However, there are two sides of the story. Over the years, the cruise business in India has seen slow growth and has been sold as a category only with very low brand recall. The Indian travel trade has yet to adopt cruising for its customers as a primary offering in its portfolio. Lack of awareness among the consumers, lack of cruising options closer to home, and limited interest among travel agents when it comes to promoting a wider destination range, are several factors responsible for the slow growth of the market.

T3 spoke with players representing cruise liners in India about the future of the market and the way forward…

All Aboard!

Cruise tourism has slowly but surely become one of the rapidly growing sections of the tourism industry. The prerequisite of a quintessential Indian traveller is to have a holiday which is all inclusive and value- for-money, and a holiday onboard a luxury cruise liner in any part of the world provides just that!

According to Pradeep Saboo, Managing Partner, Guideline Travels LLP, an Indian traveller has slowly but surely grown beyond just looking at the price tag of any product. “Quality of the destination being visited has become one of the major pointers in the check list of the modern day traveller. So the strategy remains the same both for India as well as the international market. Cruise tourism is here to stay and the cruise companies are well matching this demand and constantly upgrading their products to suit the need of any traveller.”

Agreeing with Saboo, Amit Mathur, Country Head, MSC Cruises, shared that cruising as a holiday is gradually picking up in India as consumers have started understanding the benefits of cruising. A cruise holiday presents an opportunity to explore multiple entertainment activities on a ship during the journey, he opined.

Costa Cruises is witnessing a change in the booking pattern from travel agents, informed Nalini Gupta, Managing Director, Lotus Destinations, the GSA for Costa Cruises India. “They are now looking at not just FIT bookings but also group blocks for their series movement. Of late, everybody from corporates to honeymooners, from senior citizens to families, seem to be clamouring to climb aboard cruise liners due to the convenience associated with it,” she said.

Beatrice Dolder, Business Development Director, Maison de Voyage, which represents Uniworld Boutique River Cruises in India, believes that there has been a slight growth in the cruise industry. “Even though the rest of the world, especially Europe, have seen a setback due to uncertain market conditions last year, the cruise industry has seen a slow rise by 10 per to 15 percent on an average.”

Accepting ‘Floating Hospitality’: A challenge

Globally, the total cruising population is about 20 million and driven mainly by the North American markets. Of this, the Asian share is a mere 4 per cent. From India, after years of pushing by the main travel operators, the cruise customer numbers has just about touched 100,000. At an estimated 100,000 cruise vacationers, we are still at a nascent stage, though numbers are showing a gradual increase. The growth is dependent on multiple factors such as connectivity to the sailing port, infrastructure, strength of currency and, most importantly, awareness. Trade partners play an important role in distributing the products and its imperative that they are educated to sell cruising as a concept.

American and European markets naturally believe cruising is a grand way of holidaying. International vacationing itself is still very young in India. Even now, 50 per cent of Indians go to the Far East. Sidhartha Roy, Senior Vice President, Indian Travel Promotion Company & TRN Marketing, which represents AmaWaterways in India, is disheartened that with such buoyancy in outbound travel, cruising remains nascent. “One important reason is that India, despite having a full blown ‘inbound tourism’ format and 5,000 km of coastline, does not have the environment for domestic cruising options. The little we have is firstly is not of any set standard and secondly is not pursued with passion by the domestic or inbound operators. Hence, the onus of customer education has to shift to the trade,” he opined.

According to him, the government has also shown scant interest for this format of leisure holidaying. “All efforts have been mired in some tardy decision making process. The government, tourism associations and the trade now need to orchestrate it together,” he said. Saboo also believed that the lack of government support and inadequate infrastructure for cruise is hindering the growth. “These cruise companies have now drawn away from India and explored better and much more profitable avenues at other destinations.”

Mathur believes that a better connect with the consumer is required to educate them on the benefits, most importantly help them understand that cruising is not about just being in water for seven to eight nights, it has a lot of excitement packed in.
Cruising, especially river cruising, in India is perceived as luxury travel only the rich and famous can afford which is not totally true. By booking a cruise nine to 12 months in advance, one can avail more than 50 per cent discounts on cabin fare. However, since the Indian market is known for booking last minute, it works adversely, stated Dolder, further adding that there is also a preconceived notion that cruising is for the old / retired which again is not true at all. “Another misconception is that people believe they will miss out all the important monuments and places to visit in a particular destination if they take a cruise because they will be continuously sailing. A lot of times they are not aware of shore excursions and the inclusions which river cruising offers.”

In relation to cruise vacations as a product within the fray of outbound travel, suffice to say the cruise segment has seen its share of growth over the past few years. “Having said this, the fastest way to growth is to have cruise ships of international standards and brands, positioned in our own backyard, i.e. to have home ports developed within India. Since this is still a phenomena, growth within this segment is staggered,” said Ratna Chadha, Chief Executive, Tirun Travel Marketing, which represents Royal Caribbean International in India.

Staying afloat…

Over the past two decades, Royal Caribbean has successfully marketed the concept of cruise vacations via various mediums including direct marketing, print and electronic advertising, trade programs and more. “We believe in innovation in relation to both mediums and communication. We are constantly conceiving of newer mediums and technologies as well as interesting campaigns to reach out to our consumers segments,” shared Chadha.

Costa believes in localising the product experience to meet the needs of the Indian market. Gupta elaborated, “Our approach is to focus at ‘segment wise customisation’ and defining the needs of our customers and getting it implemented in our market. We believe that Costa Cruises has all the right ingredients to suit the Indian market. Hence, we are using all our energy and focus to familiarise the audience with our ships. We are promising world-class quality and value-for-money to the audience.”

Saboo informed that there are various innovative ways in which Guideline Travels come up with when it comes to marketing the product. “Events such as an Indian food festival, along with live Bollywood entertainment are some of the tools to penetrate the Indian market. We focus on making Indian passenger’s overall cruise experience rise above their expectations.”

Apart from participating in road shows and expos, Maison de Voyage regularly sends out fliers to their clientele with attractive offers that they can avail. They have a dedicated sales team across India that goes out and promotes/talks about our product to agents in the industry. The company also advertises in trade magazines and other print media. “MSC Cruises will also continue to identify and grow the target segment of clients who have potential and tie up with experienced trade partners to promote the product in an efficient way. B2B forms a critical part of our distribution network, we will support our channel partners through regular marketing to help connect to consumers directly and generate healthy leads,” Dolder said.   

The Curious Indian: Testing new waters

While itineraries to South-East Asian countries of Singapore and Hong Kong have become popular, while cruising to Antarctica, South America and Australia are slowly picking up pace. MSC Cruises dominates the Mediterranean region and northern Europe. However, Mathur is noticing enquiries coming in for sailings in Miami, South Africa and UAE during the winter season.

For a first time traveller usually the best cruise options are from the Far East. An ideal cruise vacation could be onboard the SuperStar Virgo from Hong Kong, the SuperStar Gemini from Singapore or SuperStar Libra from Penang. “These ships visit some very beautiful ports of call viz. Sanya, Halong Bay, Kaohsiung from HongKong, Pulao Redang, Pulao Tioman, Kuantan from Singapore and Phuket, Krabi from Penang,” said Saboo, adding that this route is the busiest from the perspective of the Indian market and is well complemented by these ships as they round the year.

In terms of the Indian market, The River Rhine and River Danube cruises are always in popular demand, informed Dolder. “These sailings also get sold out well in advance. Our Danube Discovery & Prague, Legendary Rhine and Moselle and Castles along the Rhine itineraries are most popular as they cover Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Czech Republic. Our Far East destination covering countries such as Cambodia/Vietnam are also in demand with extensive itineraries from 10 to 18 Days.”

AmaWaterways is famous for their Danube sailings. This route traverses cities such as Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Karlovy Vary, Nuremberg etc. Costa Cruises enjoys maximum traffic to places which are located close to India – Singapore and Dubai.

Unique on-board offerings for MICE

Royal Caribbean International prides itself with the largest and most innovative ships, hence, MICE and charter programs are a natural corollary. “We have itineraries that allows corporate to tweak the programs to suit their needs, in terms of exclusivity, value and customisation.  We allow the corporate to charter a deck, half ship or full ship charter, based on their requirements with complete access to facilities offered onboard without any extra exposure,” informed  Chadha.

Corporates have slowly started showing keen interest in cruise holidays and Guideline Travels LLP offer many packages including various team building activities and state-of-the-art facilities to cater to large corporate groups. “There are various kinds of soft team building activities which happen on a regular basis onboard at all our ships. We also provide corporates with conference areas and onboard entertainment to host parties or functions. Moreover, we have been pioneers in organising religious kathas/discourses onboard the SuperStar Virgo, thus creating and opening up a segment of travel for the seniors in our Indian families,” Saboo added. 

Sailing onward…

Moving forward, while visibility is increasing, the effort is to monetise the mind-share, explained Roy. “The trade has begun to accept our product, though selectively. So, the ‘word of mouth’ exposure is happening but not gone ‘viral’ yet. These are early days and we hope to improve footfall going forward.”

Dolder said that, since the Indian clientele is different from the international market, their strategy too is slightly different. “Indian customers generally book last minute, hence, we need to avail them last minute deals as compared to international markets as they book well in advance and benefit early bird discounts. We are working to have few last minute deals as Indians would prefer cost effective offers. This year, we also have gratuities included, thus promoting Uniworld as an all inclusive cruise liner,” she stated, and added that, while visibility and familiarity in the market is one of their core aims, they intend to capture the niche segment.


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