In May, avid traveller Sunu Mathew and her friends had taken a seven-night cruise from Barcelona and sailed to Palma de Mallorca, Marseille, La Spezia, Civitavecchia and Naples. Three months later, Sunu still cannot stop talking about the cruise aboard the Symphony of the Seas that took them to ports in Spain, France and Italy.
The cruising industry is still in its nascent state in India, but many Indians, across age and gender, have taken to cruising for the curated experiences, sightseeing and fun it offers. They fly to Europe, US and Singapore to board luxury liners that spare no effort to pamper travellers with food, drinks, spas, shows, music, casinos, games and shore excursions.
Kochi-based travel curator Deepa Varma says it is a sea change for seasoned travellers who enjoy the feeling of travelling aboard a floating seven-star resort. She maintains the experience is special as it does away with the constant packing and navigating between destinations during a conventional vacation on land.
Plethora of choices
“On a cruise, accommodation, entertainment, dining and activities are at one place in a luxury liner. And each port offers a plethora of choices for travellers. I usually arrange a bus at the port of call to take passengers on shore excursions for sightseeing and shopping,” says Deepa.
Agreeing with her Manoj Singh, Country Head India, Norwegian Cruise Line, says cruises offer a convenient and unique all-in-one vacation that requires minimal planning among large groups of families and friends.
“Post the pandemic, families continue to look for new and exciting avenues to bond together through travel experiences. Cruising offers all of this and much more as it caters to all kinds of travellers — be it large families and groups, couples, small families or solo travellers.”
Neena Tiwari (name changed on request) who went on a cruise from Singapore to Malayasia and Thailand with her husband and two children says the advantage was that there was something for everyone on board the liner. “So, both my children enjoyed the games on board the ship. Meanwhile, I was able to watch a musical that was put up one evening while my husband tried his luck at the casino. Usually, when we travel, I hardy have any ‘me time’ as I am busy with the children. On the ship, we were also able to spend time as a family.”
Nevertheless, the challenges of visa procedures and concerns about seasickness prevent many from exploring cruising as a vacation. Sanil Raghavan, a techie in the US, recalls that their cruise to the Caribbean did not go as planned as his wife became seasick.
However, Deepa says that the size of the ships and the route taken usually takes care of such problems. She points out that the several options available is one of the advantages of a cruise. It enables her to tailor experiences that suit the interests of a group or family. From cultural expeditions to adventurous activities or shopping, the itineraries encompass many choices. For instance, there are ships that have rock climbing, sky diving, zip lining and bungee jumping. For the gourmets, there are speciality restaurants and fancy bars while there are live theatre, musicals and dance shows to entertain you on board.
Cruising got a powerful boost in India circa 2016 when Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadkane Do revolved around the wealthy Mehras’ decision to celebrate their wedding anniversary aboard a luxury liner with their family. Just as the industry began to cruise along, the pandemic dealt a blow that threatened to sink it. However, post-pandemic revenge travelling has come as a shot in the arm for cruising as travellers revel in the romance of a cruise.
Surge in cruise holidays
Thomas Cook India and SOTC’s India Holiday Report 2023 highlight a 70% surge in cruise holidays. To cash in on this trend, Thomas Cook and SOTC Travel have launched a range of cruises from short three-days cruises to polar cruises to Antarctica and Artic and round-the-world cruises.
While Cordelia Cruises has trips to places such as Jaffna and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Costa Toscana offers voyages to the UAE and Oman; Royal Caribbean Cruises has tours that explore ports in the East and West Mediterranean, Adriatic regions, Athens, Scandinavia’s fjords, Baltic itinerary etc… From the US, there are options to explore the Bahamas, the Bermudas, Alaska, Mexico and so on.
According to Manoj, Mediterranean voyages showcase cosmopolitan capital cities as well as lesser-known gems such as Seville in Spain and Sicily in Italy. “Alaska remains a favourite, with our ships designed to bring the outside in with plenty of natural light and sea breeze as well as wildlife spotting opportunities. Norwegian Prima’s Northern Europe itineraries are also a popular choice. Indians are increasingly opting for picturesque voyages of Norway and Iceland.”
Author Rachna Bisht Rawat’s favourite moment of her cruise to Norway was watching the sun setting in the Baltic sea at midnight while sipping a glass of wine in the comfort of her cabin.
“It was spectacular. The seven-day cruise was a wonderful experience though I was apprehensive when we began the trip from Amsterdam with a group of close friends. The flowers, the cities the ship docked at, the fjords in Flam… everything was new and exciting. For those who want to party all day long, there is nothing better than a cruise. But there is ample space and activities for each person,” she says. She was surprised by the massive ship that was “nine-storeys high and resembled a large mall.”
Then there are cruise-goers who travel in search of adventure. Former investment manager Anand Vasudevan, a resident of Mumbai, went on a cruise from Baltra in Eucador to visit the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Ever since I read about the islands and Charles Darwin in school, I had nursed a desire to visit the islands. In April, I travelled with a friend on aboard the Evolution Yacht to visit the islands,” recalls Anand.
Every day, the ship would dock a little away from the land and the passengers would travel to the islands on inflatable boats. “It was incredible to be actually there on the island. We saw sealions, sharks, seals and birds endemic to the region. I was enthused to meet a 150-year-old male Galapagos Giant Tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island!”
River and backwater cruises have caught on in India. Cruise and land excursions have been curated for Indian travellers. Antara cruises from Kolkata, Ganga river cruises such as MV Ganga Vilas from Varanasi to the North East, and backwater cruises in Kerala are some of the options.
At present, however three-night cruises that begin from Singapore and travel to Malayasia and Thailand are the most popular and economical international cruises as far as Indians are concerned, according to Kiran Prakash, sales manager, Royal Caribbean Cruises.
“Singapore is well-connected to India and getting a visa is also relatively hassle-free. Sixty to 70% of travellers take this route. In addition to Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the ship also calls at Phuket in Thailand,” he adds.
Indians, both young and old, are looking beyond Asia to explore new places. Varun Chadha, CEO, Tirun, explains that new ships and new experiences in private islands will soon be offered to travellers as part of their brands, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, SilverSea and Azamara.
Usha Thadani, Chennai-based regional head of Tirun, says that each of their brands, operating in India since 1993, has a distinctive experience to offer. Initially, they only used to do Bahamas and the Caribbean and the port of departure was from the US. Their voyages have since expanded to include Europe, the US, Antarctica and Asia. Royal Caribbean is family-oriented and has innovative entertainment on board; Celebrity Cruises is more relaxed and luxurious and so is SilverSeas; Azamara is boutique-style cruises.
Usha says the branding helps her pitch the right kind of cruises for customers who travel for different reasons. “Recently, a retired Colonel was travelling with his wife, daughter and her family. When he decided to invite a family friend’s family along, the son-in-law was not pleased. But I assured the colonel that the Celebrity Cruises ship was large and spacious. With so many activities on board, chances were slim they would even bump into each other but for dinners or lunch. At the end of the holiday, they were all happy about the trip,” she says.
Comfort and adventure
The growing middle class and non-resident Indians are fuelling the cruising industry. As an industry veteran puts it, non-resident Indians may have enjoyed a cruise abroad and then they gift cruises to their parents in India. The bold and the beautiful in India are also indulging themselves in voyages to explore new places and adventures but not at the cost of comfort.
Citing the polar and Greenland-Iceland cruises, Usha says that passengers board the ship at South Hampton in the UK or Buenos Aires in Argentina. “There is the excitement of exploring a new place but there is also the fear of the unknown. A cruise offers them the best of both worlds. They can go dog sledding, have regional food, see the places and at the end of the shore trip, retire to their cabins,” points out Usha.
The bulk of the passengers in India come from Delhi and Mumbai. But South India is rapidly catching up with even smaller cities such as Kozhikode and Kannur in Kerala opting for cruises. So is Gujarat and West Bengal, says Usha.
“The myth that cruising is expensive is gradually being dispelled as more Indian travellers realise that cruise vacations are, in fact, cost-friendly considering they are all-inclusive in nature with so many options available on board,” asserts Manoj. According to him, Indians are seeking holiday experiences that are meaningful and allow for more in-depth exploration to interact with local residents and explore destinations at their own pace.
A cruise from Singapore costs between ₹30,000 to 50,000 per person, excluding air fare from India to Singapore. “The fare takes care of everything and gives you an experiential vacation that you would seldom get for that amount on a road trip,” says Kiran.
However, there are cruises that can go up from ₹10 lakh to 22 lakh depending on the route and the cruise chosen. Industry insiders say the adventurous cruises like thepolar cruises and some emanating from the US have many takers, especially from Indians settled abroad or from the metros.
In December, Tirun is organising a cruise from Mumbai to Goa, Kochi, Hambantota, Colombo, Phuket, Penang and Simgapore. The 14-destination cruise is pegged at around ₹1,50,000 for one person, points out Usha.
Mary Varkey, a resident of Chennai, still has fond memories of her cruise around Europe, a gift from her husband. Staying in a cabin with a balcony, she recalls the picturesque sun rise and sunset she was able to see from her cabin. She says what stays in her mind is a stress-free vacation when she did not have to check in and check out at every new place or worry about food and rooms.
“Every day we would sail into a new city. We would go on shore excursions and when we came back, the cabin was cleaned and neat and we could participate in activities on board the ship. There were speciality restaurants, sit-down dinners, libraries…It was a vacation to cherish.”