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India’s long-overlooked cruise tourism sector is finally getting a push from the government.
Last month, in Kolkata, prime minister Narendra Modi announced an integrated waterway policy, which aims to revamp the country’s current port infrastructure, undertake riverfront development, and increase the number of cruise ships to 1,000, from the existing around 150. The objective is to make India a major heritage tourism hub, Modi said.
Experts are hopeful that the industry is now on the right track. “With efficient policies and tax relief, the cruise sector can reshape the Indian travel industry for good,” believes Ratna Chadha, co-founder and chairperson, TIRUN Travel Marketing, the exclusive India representative of Royal Caribbean Cruises, the parent firm of Celebrity Cruises. The Florida-based brand has 13 ships offering luxury cruise vacations to seven continents.
TIRUN, headquartered in New Delhi, has an on-ground presence in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Kochi, Kolkata, Pune and Surat.
In a conversation with Quartz, Chadha and Apple Woo, the Asia director of Celebrity Cruises, talk about the challenges the cruise industry faces and how the Indian market can lead the world in exploring new business opportunities in the sector. Edited excerpts.
How do you see the current state of cruise tourism in India?
Chadha: There is no cruise tourism in India, yet. It’s still a nascent industry and only about 220,000 people in India have experienced cruises. India has the potential to grow, but as of now, it is still in a developing stage.
What can the government do to boost cruise tourism in India?
Chadha: We have 7,600 kilometres of coastlines unutilised. We need good infrastructure, and now the government has taken cognisance of it. As a result, the centre is redeveloping the Mumbai port and the ones in Goa, and Mangalore (in Karnataka). Other smaller ports are also being revamped.
Geographically, India is strategically placed between western Europe and Asia. Hence, every ship to Europe has to pass through India and we have a huge opportunity there to capture that market. Besides, India offers multiple (cruise) destinations within the same country. Passengers in India can take a cruise and also explore the land-locked destinations.
For instance, if the ship passes through Mumbai then passengers can hop off there and take a flight or bus to their new destination. Cruise tourism can help boost travel in many ways.
What are the popular destinations for cruise travel globally, and in India?
Woo: For global travellers, Europe is the number one destination. The wildlife in the Galapagos Islands has also been one of the main attractions. From India, we have seen a huge demand for Alaska and Antarctica. We are expecting an increase in our travellers, particularly in the Europe sector.
Are cruises viable for the Indian middle class?
Chadha: I believe that cruising is not the prerogative of the rich and famous. There are many brands catering to all segments. Cruise tourism can reach the masses if it gets much-needed attention from the government. It can have a multiplier impact on the economy and can encourage employment. The potential is up to the tune of Rs35,000 crore ($4.9 billion) revenue a year.
Who are your target customers?
Chadha: Celebrity cruises fall in the luxury segment. It’s known for modern luxury. We target people in the luxury segment and those are the ones who wish to experience the leisure world. It’s a limited segment.
What are the challenges the cruise industry is dealing with globally?
Chadha: Globally, the challenges are not so much around demand and supply. Cruise ships of all brands around the world are running at more than 85% occupancy collectively. There are people who prefer travelling from the cruise. However, one needs to understand that a cruise vacation is a multi-destination trip. So the main challenge we face, especially in India, is regarding the infrastructure. Then there are disadvantages in the tax structure too.
Woo: I would like to address them as more like opportunities. We see that there has been an increase in the demand for travel from the Asia Pacific and we at our end are also launching new ships. For India, we can say the country is at a growth rate of 35%.
At present, what is Celebrity Cruises’ fleet size and how many new ships are you planning to launch?
Woo: We have 13 ships. And later in the year, we will launch Apex. We are expanding and will continue to add more to our fleet.
Why should passengers choose Celebrity Cruises? What is it that you are offering that others don’t?
Ratna Chadha: Our brand is well known in the international market and is now picking up in India too. We offer the value quotient to our customers. People want to come to us because our brand is cost-effective. We provide quality services with fine dining, spa, and other recreational activities. This is included in the cruise cost. The value our customer gets on a cruise vacation is far greater than any luxury vacation including a staycation in a villa.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said India had the world’s third largest coastline.