Holidays at sea return as international cruise liners begin to arrive at Indian ports

Defying the challenges posed by the pandemic, luxury passenger ships are back on the waters. As the cruise liner season kicks off in India, we look at how the industry is innovating to stay on an even keel

Updated - January 23, 2023 05:22 pm IST

Published - January 23, 2023 04:18 pm IST

French vessel Le Champlain in Kochi

French vessel Le Champlain in Kochi

A celebratory beating of drums welcomed Viking Mars at Mumbai Port in November 2022. The Norwegian vessel was the first to restart India’s cruise line tourism season (November-May), paused by the pandemic since March 2020. The luxury passenger ship was followed by several others. In the New Year, the French vessel Le Champlain was the first to arrive in Indian ports — Mumbai, Goa and Kochi — on its way to Galle and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. The season also saw the arrival of Amera with the Bahamas flag at Thoothukudi, in Tamil Nadu, on January 11, after a gap of six years. Chennai opened its season with Le Champlain on January 10.

One will recall that in February 2020, when those aboard the British-registered luxury cruise ship Diamond Princess were struck with COVID-19, commentators called it a “floating petri dish,” and predicted the end of holidays at sea. The return of the cruise liners has brought optimism to an industry that was battered by a prolonged shutdown. The first efforts to restart were initiated at the first International Cruise Conference of India, organised by the Mumbai Port Authorities, in May 2022 and attended by various stakeholders including cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Holland America, MSC Cruises S.A., to name a few.

Starting small

Though the revival is slow and has begun only with small and mid-size vessels (capacity of 200 and 400 people), it has sent waves of relief across the industry. “The return of international cruise ships to India brings new opportunities in the shipping and tourism sector. There’s an increase in the number of calls scheduled to India as compared to earlier years,” says Nevil Malao, VP Cruise and Navy Cell of Shipping agency, JM Baxi & Co, adding that they are handling over 50 ships this season till May 2023. “We can consider this to be positive growth in cruise tourism in spite of the ongoing COVID-19 scare across various countries,” he says.

Nevil speaks of doing approximately 20 calls (a classic port call is 12 hours) at Mumbai, Goa, Kochi and Agatti in Lakshwadeep Islands, with domestic cruise line Cordelia this season. “Cruising is now more affordable after the arrival of Cordelia Cruise in India since September 2021. It is no longer considered elitist and is affordable across a wider spectrum of society,” he says.

Currently, Cordelia cruises offer 3-to-5-day sailings to Mumbai, Goa, Kochi and Agatti and are scheduled to launch Chennai–Sri Lanka to their itinerary from June to September. The cruise line that began operations in 2021 has so far “delightfully delivered to over 200k customers.” “We host large functions for milestone birthdays, anniversaries, wedding parties and corporate events and offer flexibility to choose from various itineraries as well as categories,” says Jurgen Bailom, President and CEO, Waterways Leisure Tourism whose MV Empress is now a familiar name in Indian ports.

A traditional welcome accorded to Europa-2 at Sagarika International cruise terminal in Kochi. She was the first vessel to arrive in Kochi  in 2022

A traditional welcome accorded to Europa-2 at Sagarika International cruise terminal in Kochi. She was the first vessel to arrive in Kochi in 2022

“We are in no way back to pre-COVID-19 levels but a revival has begun,” says Michael Haidar Ali of Micato Safaris, a New Delhi based luxury (shore excursion agent) inbound operator who also deals with cruise holidays.

Other tour operators concur, excited at the season’s itinerary. Rani Bachani, Executive Director of Kochi-based Viceregal Travel & resorts Ltd, is taking a group of 26 to Greenland and Iceland on NCL (Norwegian Cruise Liner) in July. “This cruise begins and ends at Reykjavik and is not as common as other regular European ones, hence it is expensive. The cost for a 10-night experience is ₹3 lakh that excludes airfare, visas and insurance,“ says Rani.

“We want people to come back to vacation on cruise liners so from our end we are offering great value,” adds Ratna Chadha of Tirun RCCL, representing the Royal Caribbean domestic market. She explains value as ensuring health safety for passengers. “The HEPA (high efficiency particulate air filter) air-conditioning systems in the ships blow air into specific areas and prevents circulation of germs; our buffets are a lot more spread out; the theatres have multiple shows and seating is spaced out,” says Ratna.

Nalini Gupta, GSA (General Sales Agent) Costa Cruises in India, agrees that people are travelling aggressively now and the company’s Costa Deliziosa would be calling at Mumbai on January 30. The approximately 2260 passenger capacity ship with 934 crew set sail on January 11 from Savona, Italy.   

MV Empress, Cordelia Cruises

MV Empress, Cordelia Cruises

Michael explains why only “small vessels” have been deployed in the first season. “Ships that are on a world cruise generally begin their voyage in January. People either book for the entire three to four months period or do a segment. The bulk of the ships that we get in India are those that are repositioning, sailing in Asia during winter and moving to Europe from April to October. Cruise lines were very hard hit by the pandemic. All our neighbouring countries had not opened hence deployment of vessels had to be carefully thought out looking at viability.”

Nevil adds that the uncertainty amongst cruise passengers about the ongoing COVID-19 situation across various countries, has made cruise lines pitch only small to mid-size ships for round-the-world cruises. “Most shipping companies are still deploying the vessels close to their home port as pandemic uncertainty persists,” says Nalini.

E-Visa facilities

Nevil says that The Government of India has already taken various initiatives like upgradation of port infrastructure at major ports, construction of a new cruise terminal at Mumbai Port, rationalisation of port charges, removing ousting charges, priority berthing to cruise ships, and providing e-visa facilities to boost tourism,” but some initiatives like a single window clearance system for cruise ships, standard clearance procedure across all ports, reduction in documentation requirements, fixed custom duty per passenger, waiver of priority charges at all ports would further enhance cruise travel.

With ease of transition and a growing demand many new cruise lines like Viking Ocean, Crystal Cruises and Virgin Cruise have planned their cruise ships to call in India. Cordelia Cruises too is set to launch “new itineraries catering to near and far destinations in Asia and the subcontinent,” says Jurgen

Sagarika international cruise terminal at Kochi

Sagarika international cruise terminal at Kochi

Popular destinations

According to passenger feedback, Mangalore is emerging as a popular port. “Though it has a small cruise terminal, it works; we are using Karnataka Tourism buses and despite a lack of professional guides, we use teachers, senior students and professors to showcase the region. The reports are encouraging,” says Michael. He adds that Mumbai and Kochi tend to be more popular than the Chennai port. “It suffers from poor infrastructure, unavailability of professional guides and limited number of sightseeing options.” Mumbai, on the other hand, Michael says offers a choice of over 15 different tours to passengers, run by articulate and knowledgeable guides, with an impressive majority being women.

“Kochi is the only port in India to have two world class cruise terminals – Samudrika and Sagarika. To provide an experience right from the time that passengers disembark, the Cochin Port proposes to develop ‘Kochi Haat’, wherein local vendors will be permitted to sell souvenirs, ethnic products, apparels, ayurvedic products, spices etc,” says Vipin R Menoth, Traffic Manager, Cochin Port Authority.

Another COVID-19 fallout, says Sejoe Jose, MD of Kochi-based Marvel Tours, is that 80% of the passengers prefer to use organised tours with the cruise liner partner. “This is for safety but it hurts the disorganized market like auto rickshaws and individual shops.”

Sheela K Chittilappilly who loves cruises for its “slow pace and exclusive space,” has undertaken six cruises so far and is keenly looking forward to her trip to Alaska in July. A seasoned traveller she is not worried about safety measures on board, confident that it is of the highest level.

Maritime India Vision 2030 (MIV 2030)
In February 2021, the Government of India initiated the Maritime India Vision 2030 (MIV 2030) to make India the Cruise Development Hub of the World. Among its objectives to develop India as a Cruise Destination is to increase the number of Indian cruises from 150 to 1,000 in five years. “Some of the major initiatives that were taken were standardised operating procedures (SOPs) for cruise vessels at all major ports, of all foreign flag vessels carrying passengers to call at India ports, without obtaining a license from Director General of Shipping, till February 2024; a rationalised composite tariff for cruise ship at all major ports, Walk-in berthing or preferential berthing for cruise ships and financial assistance to ports for building cruise terminals,” says Vipin R Menonth, Traffic Manager, Cochin Port
MV Ganga Vilas

MV Ganga Vilas

The world’s longest river cruise
Organised by Antara Cruises, the epic 51-day long cruise along the Ganges and the Brahmaputra started. from Kashi (Uttar Pradesh) to Dibrugarh (Assam) via Sunderbans and Bangladesh, and will sail across 27 smaller rivers, five states and two countries. 
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