Targeting the burgeoning Indian middle class, a luxury cruise liner has begun operations from this Southern Indian port city, wooing tourists to exotic locales of Maldives and Colombo with ticket rates as low as Rs 5,000.

The Mediterranean-based Louise Cruises, which launched its luxury liner “M V Aquamarine” to operate services on Kochi-Maldives-Kochi and Kochi-Colombo-Kochi routes besides a one night high seas sailing trip, is hoping that the season would be rewarding.

Kochi is the first non-European base for the 12 strong fleet of Louise Cruises,world’s fifth largest cruise operator.

This is the first cruise liner to offer cruises targeted at the Indian tourism market with packages starting from Rs 5,000 per person per day for the three-night tour with rates going upto Rs 90,000 for a Royal Suite, Oneil Khosa, Managing Director of Louise Cruises India, told PTI.

Around 600 passengers are undertaking the maiden voyage to Maldives onboard the ship which was flagged off on Thursday.

Saurav Sakle and his wife Prarthana, who arrived here from New Delhi to undertake the trip, said this was a fabulous tour as Maldives otherwise was an expensive destination. “This is a good option,” 26-year-old Prarthana said.

Another young couple Kuldeep Jain from Kolkatta and his wife Sangeetha Jain said they had been on cruise trips to the Caribbean and Singapore and were going to Maldives for the first time.

Hugo from Holland and Alena from the Czech Republic, among the 20 odd international tourists on this trip, said they liked cruises and this will be a nice way to explore Maldives.

The two, on their first trip to Kerala, felt it was like Goa.

Mr. Khosa said Indian market was ready for cruise tourism and their goal was to offer a product Indians can relate to. “As we grow we will look at Tuticorin, Goa, Mumbai and Andamans.” The company was hoping around 60,000 tourists would take the cruise in the first five months, he added.

Kochi has the making of a great cruise port, Mr. Khosa said.

However, he wanted about 50 per cent reduction on all port charges - such as berthing especially for one night cruise.

Kerala Tourism Secretary V Venu, undertaking the cruise tour along with his family, said the cruise launch was very important for Kerala tourism.

The vessel will home port in Kochi from Dec 2 to April 25, 2010 and will operate cruise itineraries thrice a week.

Union Tourism Minister Kumari Selja, who launched the cruise service, had said there was tremendous scope for cruise tourism in the country given India’s strong domestic tourism and growing middle class and the over 7000 km long coastline.

The seven-deck ship has 525 rooms and suites, besides restaurants, fitness centres, massage and sauna facilities, casino and duty free shop. It has been modified to include a cricket pitch giving cricket crazy Indian travellers a new experience of playing cricket on the high seas.

Food and entertainment on board had also been designed to suite Indian tastes.