Updated: Apr 29 2007, 05:30am hrs
Sailing across the deep blue sea with open skies up above, cruise travel offers an inimitable experience of travelling on a floating luxury resort. Widely popular amongst the travellers in the developed nations, cruise tourism is fast catching up in India as well. Just two years ago, enthusiasts from India had to fly down to Singapore to enjoy cruising. However, with the relaxation of the cabotage laws by the shipping ministry in January 2004, allowing foreign flag cruise vessels calling at more than one Indian port to sail without obtaining permits from the director-general shipping, Indian ports have been open to number of international cruise operators.

Growing at the rate of 25-30%, the cruise industry in India has seen number of international players like Holland America Cruises, Princess Cruises; Royal Caribbean Cruises etc. An estimated 70,000-80,000 Indians set sail last year on different international cruises.

Cox & King, Thomas Cook, SOTC and other leading travel operators across the country sell cruise packages. Apart from the domestic packages offered by Star Cruises on a Super Star Libra for Lakshadweep (3 nights), Goa (2 nights) and High Seas (1 night), now Indians too have colourful choices, ranging from Greece, India and the Gulf, the Caribbean and the Far East etc.

Carrying more than a million passengers in the last five years, Star Cruises have captured nearly 70% of the cruise market in Asia Pacific. According to experts, it has played a leading role in shaping up the cruise industry in India too. The first player to enter India, Star Cruise is the only domestic cruise operator in the country. In its first season itself, Star Cruises hosted 72,000 Indians sailing on the Super Star Libra and the figure had touched 52,000 by mid-March this season.

Star Cruise offers a healthy mix of packages catering to different segments: from families, corporates travellers and to even college going students. At present, cruise travel is widely accepted amongst the corporates and the demand is increasing. In Super Star Libra, close to 30% of the occupancy comes from corporate travellers.

Hot Deals
Holland America Cruise Lines
10-day Adriat and Aegean Odysseya round-trip to Venice, starting from Veendam; between April 19 and May 9; cost: starts at $1,399 for inside room, $1,599 for outside room, $2,899 for verandah suite
16-day European capitalsAthens to London; starting from Rotterdam; starting on May 14; cost: starts at $1,499 for inside room to $6,999 for deluxe verandah suite room
Contact: STIC Travels Pvt Ltd; tel:
Delhi (011) 23324336/8028,
Mumbai (022) 22182628/5494,

Star Cruisessuper star libra
Weekend getaway cruiseshigh seas; Duration:one night; cost:
Rs 4,800 (inside stateroom on deck
2 & 3) to Rs 19,200 for an executive suite; the cruise starts from Mumbai port in the evening, touches international waters in the night and back
Mumbai-Lakshadweep-Mumbai; Duration: 3 nights; Cost: Rs 14,000 (inside stateroom Deck 2 & 3) to Rs 54,800 for an executive suite; the cruise starts from Mumbai, reaches Lakshadweep on day 2, Kadmat Island on day 3 and comes back
Contact: Guideline Travels Pvt Ltd; tel: (022) 22006688/22076688/22066688,

Costa Cruises
Ancient treasures on Costa Serena; Duration: 7 nights; between June and November; Cost: starting from $ 1,299
Grecian Splendour on Costa Mediterranean; Duration: 7 nights; between May and November; cost: starting from $ 1,189
Contact: TCI; tel: (022) 22021881; (011) 23415373

Though operating at close to 60% occupancy, Star Cruise is not looking at rewards in near future. Says Naresh Rawal, senior manager marketing, Star Cruises India: It would take few years for the company to reach break even, but the benefits that Star Cruises have achieved by being in market would fetch bigger rewards in the future.

The rates for a cruise on Superstar Libra starts at Rs 4,400 for a single day and goes up to Rs 54,800 for three days per person on a twin-sharing basis.

In the past few years, both the ministry for shipping and tourism have been working pro-actively to promote the cruise industry in the country. To develop this sector further, the cruise policy from the government is on the anvil. The draft policy issued by Government late last year stressed the need for a conducive fiscal regime by asking for the wavering of duties on bunkering, service tax levied by Central Government, entertainment tax levied by the state governments and duties on food & beverage.

Currently, Indian ports are tailormade to handle cargos and not passengers. The ministry has proposed to upgrade key ports to international standards to reduce berthing time and provide waiting rooms. According to reports, a brand new international class cruise terminal is being built in Mumbai for Rs 200 crore. Though the industry holds promise, there are still a number of challenges ahead like abysmally poor passenger amenity at port terminals, limited awareness about the cruise travelling, government regulations, etc. However, there is a common consensus amongst tour operators that educating the travel agents remains the key.

Right now, cruise is not a part of basket of products offered by the travel agent in India. Indian tourist usually picks up the product pushed by the agents, says Dario Rustico, sales director, Pacific Asia Operation, Costa Cruises. It is a time-consuming process, but it is the only way, he adds. Costa has already planned to reach out to more than 200 tour operators by the end of this year and educate them about cruising in India.

Experts feel that things are moving in right direction and positive outlook from government has been the added benefit. Richa Goyal Sikri, India representative for Holland America Line believes that because Indian tourists are now developing a taste for longer duration cruises, the momentum for cruise holidays has finally picked up in the country. Says she: We have experienced a growth of minimum 25%-30% in the past few years. This year too we are looking at a growth of almost 60% in our business.

Adds Rustico: The sky is the limit for the cruise industry in India. Once the base work is created, the consumers will come. It is very well accepted across the markets in US and Europe, and there is no reason why cruise holidays will not be accepted in India as well. The future is closer than what we see today as far as cruise industry is concerned.