India’s cruise tourism is beginning to display signs of future potential. The government, as well as industry players, are now trying to break the myth that cruises are expensive and are unveiling newfangled strategies to boost cruise tourism in the country. Although the industry is grappling with never-ending struggles like last-minute bookings, volatile currency, and delays in obtaining a visa, industry veterans are optimistic that they will soon witness a sea change.
In 2017 when the Indian government woke up to the potential of cruise tourism, they realized that this segment can not only be a growth driver for the Indian economy, but it can also generate huge employment opportunities. As a result, an action plan was chalked out last year by Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Shipping and Road Transport and Highways, who called upon the state governments to play an active role in promoting cruise holidays. Since then the Ministry of Shipping has been working in tandem with all relevant ministries and departments within the government to develop, package, and market tourists attractions across the country. For starters, the government set up a joint task force headed by Secretary Shipping and Secretary Tourism. A global consultant was also engaged in drawing up an action plan. This year, the action plan, which emerged from these deliberations, concentrated on developing certain specific sites as attractive tourist destinations and generating awareness about them both within the country and overseas.
The government has also zeroed in on Mumbai as India’s cruise tourism hub and places like Sassoon Dock, Sewree Fort, KanhojiAngre Island, Mandwa, Alibaug, and Vijaydurg have been identified as potential tourist spots. Preparations are in full swing to add more destinations to the list.
Meanwhile, leading industry players are navigating new ideas to drive cruise tourism in India. These approaches offer a playbook to small and mid-size cruise companies that find themselves outside the action. Many leading companies are optimistic about cruise tourism picking up in a big way in India. For instance, Genting Cruise Lines has identified key trends that have helped them chalk out a successful sales strategy. The company has noticed a steady rise in the number of travelers that are opting for cruises as an alternate way of spending their holidays or vacations. “In the recent past, there have been a lot of travelers from across India,” says Naresh Rawal, Vice President – Sales, Genting Cruise Lines – Star Cruises, Dream Cruises & Crystal Cruises. Interesting trends like destination weddings on board a cruise ship are also grabbing eyeballs.
“Modern day cruise ships are equipped to pose as a perfect destination for dream Indian weddings. With personalized services like Fireworks At Sea, a wide array of Indian vegetarian and Jain cuisine, international and Indian DJs, and venues that can host receptions of up to 1,000 people, cruises are becoming an alternative for a destination wedding,” explains Rawal.
Genting Cruise Lines is optimistic of the industry’s steady growth as cruising today is fast reaching the wider leisure market in India. “Indian vacationers no longer take long annual holidays. They prefer two or three short holidays throughout the year and when the short holidays is clubbed with a 2-night weekend cruise, the vacation package is an absolute value-for-money deal. Year-on-year, we are finding an increase in the number of guests traveling on weekend cruise and feel that the segment has already made its niche,” adds Rawal.
Betting big on home-porting
One of the key players in the market is Lotus Destinations (GSA Costa Cruise India). According to the company, India is well-positioned to emerge as the most sought-after cruise tourism destination. “The real growth and opportunity of cruise tourism in India are in home-porting. More international cruise companies need to come to India with their ships around the year,” says Nalini Udai Gupta, Managing Director, Lotus Destinations (GSA Costa Cruise India). According to a recent report, the growth of Indian cruise passengers will exceed that of China, once home-porting becomes more popular.
Inbound looks promising
According to Lotus Destinations, the inbound market for cruise tourism is doing well. “Typically, a foreign passenger prefers to take a longer cruise of at least 10-14 nights. Many foreigners are enjoying seeing India through a cruise and are spending good amounts of money at each of the ports,” says Gupta. As the government realizes the importance and the benefits of the cruising industry on the Blue Economy of India, the cruise companies are hoping the tax climate such as customs duties and GST will become more customer-friendly and in accordance with international norms.
“Tax exemptions for at least 10 years will definitely entice more international cruise liners to homeport in India. These proposals have also been supported by the Ministry of Tourism and Shipping which is a very positive sign. The government is also spending a large amount of money on the ports to improve the infrastructure and align into international standards. Foreigners are able to now get visa-on-arrival facilities at the Indian ports,” explains Gupta.
Singapore a key cruise destination
Several cruise companies have set their sights on Singapore. Indians account for one of Singapore’s largest source markets for cruising. “Most Indians typically prefer cruises which are short, close to home, have good flight connectivity and easy visa formalities. Keeping this in mind, we have had many first-time cruisers experience their first sailing on our Mumbai to Maldives, and Cochin to Maldives itineraries from December to March. Our sailings in Singapore during the Diwali and Christmas season, also have many Indian travelers,” says Gupta.
TIRUN too has come up with a special campaign. “Our Campaign for Singapore is going to go live with Kid’s cruise free offer and Fly Cruise proposition. In this, we are offering a bundled package of Royal Caribbean International Cruise to Singapore with return flights on Singapore Airline,” says Ratna Chadha, Chief Executive, TIRUN.
“The nearest port for Indians at the moment is Singapore. Hence we came up with our fly cruise offer for Singapore sailing. Also, a myth around cruises is that they are expensive. One should notice that the cruise vacations are affordable now in comparison to the flight and land travel as it comes inclusive of all,” says Chadha.
As far as other destinations are concerned, India is still an emerging country where outbound cruise tourism is concerned. However, with the changing trends in consumer preferences, outbound cruise tourism will be one of the fastest growing verticals in the hospitality industry for coming years.
A double-digit growth
2017-2018 was a promising year for cruise tourism in India, which saw nearly 1.6 lakh cruise tourists in the country. The future looks bright for the cruises, assert industry veterans. According to Tarique Hussain, co-founder, Cruise Club, the industry is on a growth trajectory and cruise vacation is steadily on the rise with a projected 27.2 million passengers expected to set sail in 2018 globally.
“Cruise vacations are getting more and more popular as ‘the new vacation.’ Within a 4-6 hour flying radius from India, there are currently world-class ships available from ports such as Singapore and Hong Kong,” he says.
He added that cruise lines have recognized the need to bring their best ships and amenities to the region to attract Asian travelers. “The cruise industry in Asia, including India, will continue to experience robust double-digit growth due to the deployment of these newer and bigger tonnages. Also, they have tweaked the onboard offerings tailored to the Asian guests including inclusive onboard activities aimed at multi-generational families, high-end shopping, and adapted menus to include familiar favorites and regional cuisine. In view of all of these, we believe that the market will grow exponentially. That said, the total cruise outbound travelers from India still accounts for less than 1% to the total outbound traveler so we have only scratched the surface,” says Hussain.
There is greater awareness of the options today. Earlier, Indian clients knew only a few brands. Today, they are exploring more than 40 cruise lines around the world, and to all 7 continents. “We are seeing growing interest in the luxury options grow exponentially. The challenge was never about the ability to afford. Rather, it was the lack of awareness. With the proliferation of information on the internet, consumers have ready information available. Of course, they will need a cruise expert to help them navigate through the various option. That is the biggest change in the market,” adds Hussain.
Kunal Sampat, General Manager (India), MSC Cruises, says Indian travelers have evolved over the years and they are looking forward to more bespoke experiences. “Since a cruise holiday has something to offer for every age group, one can see a spike in Indian travelers opting for a cruise holiday,” he says.
He added that the current government has been extremely aggressive in promoting India as a prominent tourist attraction. “As India has such a huge and a prominent coastline, it is the most obvious area which has to be developed to get more foreign tourists in the country to generate revenue. Hence, maximum efforts have been put in by the government to develop cruise tourism in India. Along with ocean cruising, they have also taken initiatives to develop river cruising in the east and are working on even sea-plane facilities in the country. However, we are still miles away from becoming a cruise destination,” he says.
Cruise companies in India are using every opportunity to innovate. Besides introducing loyalty programs, they are tying up with like-minded partners like tour operators, airlines, and hotels. The cruise companies also conducting regular training programs for trade partners, organizing FAM trips, and are using both digital promotions and traditional marketing to reach out to partners as well as customers.
The government, rather than looking at a short-term goal, needs to understand the long-term benefits of revenue being generated by inviting cruise vessels to come to India. They need to make the deal attractive for a cruise liner to come and position their ships in Indian waters.