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India ready to cast off on cruise tourism

According to the recently shared figures by K J Alphons, Union Minister of State (I/C) for Tourism, a total of 139 cruise ships, carrying 1,62,660 passengers, visited India at six major ports in the year 2017-2018. Globally, more than 28 million passengers boarded the cruise ships in 2018. The number is expected to reach 30 million in 2019. In terms of number of visits to different destinations, the 30 million passengers converts into significantly bigger number as the cruise itinerary generally is multi-destinations and touches more than just one country on any trip. India’s share is miniscule, to say the least.

Consultant Bermello Ajamil & Partners who were tasked to prepare a viable plan and procedure for cruise operation in India in their initial report had pointed that India is sitting on a gold mine of cruise tourism with a direct cruise revenue benefit to the government to the tune of Rs. 35,500 crore as against current 712 crore. The report was submitted in 2017.

With a coastline as vast as 7,517 km and dotted with some of the most sought-after destinations on East and West coast, India’s potential to tap the cruise tourism segment is enormous. However, the country is still scratching at the surface with not even 150 cruise lines docking in a whole year. Malaysia and Thailand get almost four times more; China, well over a thousand and Japan, in the region of 2500 ships a year. So what is holding India back?     

SATTE 2019 brought together some of cruising industry’s prominent faces from India and abroad to understand the opportunity and how the sector’s potential can be unleashed for India at a panel discussion on ‘Cruise Tourism: India Ahoy!’ The session was moderated by Peter Kollar, Head of International Training & Development, Cruise Lines International Association. The speakers on the panel included Vinod Zutshi, Former Secretary Tourism, Gov. of India; Ratna Chadha, Chief Executive, Tirun Travel Marketing & India Representative, Royal Caribbean Cruises; Nishith Saxena, Founder & Director, Cruise Professionals; Felix Chan, Vice President of Sales - Asia, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and P P Khare, Sr. Consultant, Inland Waterways Authority of India, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India.

Domestic Cruise Landscape

While opening the discussion, Kollar remarked that the cruise tourism sector has certainly seen movements in India in the last few years but then there are also new consumer taxes coming in etc. He remarked, “So as good as the work is going forward, there is still some going back. So where are we at now?”

Shedding light on some of the recent developments for Cruise tourism in India, Zutshi mentioned that Costa Cruise that started operation in December 2016 has continued its operation for the third consecutive year operating Mumbai-Maldives cruise; Angriya, India’s first sea cruise line, was launched last year; Jalesh, a new cruise line by Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group, is expected to begin operation sometime soon and the there is a Indian cruise industry body, INCLA (India Cruise Line Association) that was recently launched to be the voice of the cruise industry in India and moreover there has been some regulatory developments to facilitate easy access of Indian ports by foreign cruise liners.

Furthermore he said, “The emergence of cruise tourism in India will start when Indians start getting attracted to cruising. They are waiting for the best opportunity. They are waiting for affordable tour. They are waiting for a home port.”    

Chan touched on Indian travellers growing propensity for cruising, especially in the short-haul circuits. He however also pointed that more and more Indian travellers are also opting for cruising products in far-off Caribbean and places like Alaska, among others. Chan also touched upon some of the selling tips for travel industry.

Opportunity

Chadha says, “The reason why we are so gung-ho about domestic cruising is because for a country like India our greatest asset we have is our people. If 170,000-180,000 people can fly to Singapore (for cruising), can you imagine what would happen if we have our home ports open here. Our fabric, our culture, our heritage and everything that we have is first for our domestic products. Let them see what is there to see. We need to open our country to our own people first.”

Talking about cruising opportunity for the domestic market in the inland waterways, Khare said, “As far as river cruise is concerned there are many success stories and they are commercially viable too. On Ganga River over 12,000 tourists have already done cruising in 2017-18. The 2018-19 figures will be better than this. There are already 10 cruising vessel in the Ganges. There are three major operators right now. And national waterways starts from Allahabad. And if you add around 220 kms of Sundarbans, it becomes more than 1800 kms of waterways on Ganges itself. And this area is very rich in heritage and monuments. Now what is missing is that all these vessels are targeting European tourists and to some extent Americans and now Japanese and Koreans also.”

He also pointed that after the Indo-Bangladesh joint agreement in this area, now Indian vessels can go from Ganges in West Bengal via Bangladesh to Brahmaputra in Guwahati and this opens a whole new opportunity to further grow the river cruise fleet in these rivers as well as development of the domestic river cruise market. 

Distribution

For a market of the size of India, the country is barely producing over 150,000 cruise passengers. Whereas the domestic cruising is virtually non-existent at the moment. The cruising generates most of its sales through B2B models and Indian tour operators are yet to truly latch on to the cruising windfall. 

Chadha said, “To be fair the distribution has taken its time. I have been in this trade for now 26 years trying to educate, trying to motivate, trying to instigate, trying to probe, trying to prod, trying to do everything, but I think there was a little bit of apprehension. People did not understand the potential of what we were talking about. They were used to ticketing and hotels and that kind of stuff and this was something new for the country and new for the trade. So they really took their time. But I think they have realised now that this is a great avenue for them to increase their sales. They can’t just rely on pure ticketing and other avenues because the commission levels there are diminishing.”

Pointing at the need for the travel industry to wake up to the cruising opportunity, Saxena said, “They are not realising that they are sitting on a gold mine. There is a degree to which cruise line can do spoon feeding. There is a time when everybody has to do start doing self-learning.”

Way forward

In order to give boost to river cruise in the Inland waterways, Khare pointed at the need to ramp up infrastructures like terminals, dredging and salvaging facilities. Zutshi and Chadha pointed at the need to facilitate the ease of doing business for the cruise liners by relaxing and streamlining the rules and procedures. “This is the way we will be able to attract the cruise liners”, said Zutshi. He also added the need to give boost to the cruise related infrastructure. Chan pointed at the need to facilitate quality partnership between the cruise liners and travel industry.

“To grow cruise business, whether internationally or domestically, we have to create an eco-system around cruising because ultimately it is the end consumer who is the king. It is not only restricted to getting those buzz. It is also about creation of jobs, it is also about creation of supply chain, etc. So if you are able to create, through various stakeholders, the correct eco-system which can support cruising, it will directly help the overall cruise industry, from India for outbound as well as domestic cruising,” said Saxena.

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