Picture yourself on the deck of a ship, lounging and looking at the open sea. The evening’s entertainment is lined up, followed by a gourmet dinner. While it sounds like a scene out of a Bollywood movie where the rich frolic aboard a luxury cruise, it might not be as out of reach as you’d think.

Despite having 4,500 miles of coastline from Gujarat in the west to the Andaman Islands in the east and 13 major ports, the cruise industry in India is still pretty nascent, but a number of domestic cruises have been introduced in recent times. “Indians rank number two among Asians in terms of choosing cruise vacations after China. Cruises have witnessed a marked increase lately due to various factors and increased disposable income among the middle and upper middle class in India. Indians are increasingly opting for tourism that offers a mix of adventure, entertainment and culinary experiences," said Jurgen Bailom, president and chief executive officer, Jalesh Cruises, a cruise operating company which started operations in India in April 2019 and has completed 25 sailings.

The numbers support this. “Over the last few years, demand for cruise liners has grown significantly and the category has witnessed a growth of over 25%. Data indicates that by the end of this year, more than 2.5 lakh Indians would have booked a cruise to one of their favourite seaside getaways in the world," said a spokesperson from MakeMyTrip, an online travel aggregator. “Luxury cruise lines ferrying within the domestic coastline are beginning to gain traction and are increasingly booked by travellers from Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad," the spokesperson added.

If you are looking to plan your next vacation and are interested in taking a domestic cruise, here’s what you need to know.

Not just for super rich

Perhaps one big deterrent that keeps many from exploring cruises is the idea that they can be outrageously expensive. But that’s not always true, especially when it comes to domestic cruises. “India has an emerging middle class that is looking for novel vacation options apart from the traditional fly-land tour packages. Cruises offer a good alternative and there are a variety of brands and packages at different price points that can appeal to different audiences," said Varun Chadha, CEO, Tirun, a travel marketing representation company.

To meet the needs of the price conscious Indian tourist, companies like Jalesh have launched affordable alternatives to “luxury cruises". “Karnika, our first premium ship offers world class hospitality at an affordable price, thereby helping create more demand for cruising in India unlike luxury cruises, where the price factor is quite high given that such cruises are also for a longer duration," said Bailom. The cruises offered by the company are priced between 13,360 for two nights and three days and 27,360 for four nights and five days. The liner offers everything from a variety of restaurants to round-the-clock WiFi and even shopping options.

But for many Indian travellers, price might not be the last word. Experience counts for just as much. “We are seeing the rise of the independent and discerning Indian traveller. There is a shift away from vanilla packages and the ability backed desire to chart one’s own itinerary, exploring places outside the usual bucket list and also experiencing a place to the core and not be limited to archaic touristy places. This discerning breed is not the one to run after discounts but after true value and service," said Ankit Rastogi, head of accommodation and activities, Cleartrip, an online travel company.

What to expect

Cruise liners are often designed like tiny self-sufficient cities, complete with shopping and dining options, pools, gyms, banquet halls, performances and entertainment options to fill your evenings.

For instance, the Angriya, a 20-year-old cruise liner that boasts of being India’s first domestic cruise liner and traverses the Mumbai-Goa coastline, has an under-water spa and gym, and an infinity swimming pool, and offers eight different categories of rooms and underwater suites to choose from. The ship also features two restaurants and six bars. The room rents start at around 7,000. There is also the M.V. Mahabaahu Cruise, offered by cruise operator Pandaw River Cruises, which has been sailing on the Brahmaputra river for around eight years and will take you on a tour of the north-east, covering destinations such as Kaziranga National Park and Peacock Island.

One big advantage of cruise offers is that they are a package deal. “Cruises offer an all-inclusive package at a great value. Also, the cruise product has everything that an Indian wants, from variety of food, entertainment to port calls," said Vasundhara Gupta, business development and marketing manager, Lotus Destinations, GSA Costa Cruise India, an Italian cruise line with global operations.

Things to keep in mind

Domestic cruising has not quite come into its own in India yet. They might not always live up to the expectations you have based on experiences in international counterparts.

Neeru Bhandari, 45, a Bengaluru-based housewife, who took a six-day cruise from Singapore, recounts the experience fondly. “We took the cruise as a family, three generations together, to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary and it was a wonderful experience. We could all be together, but there were plenty of activities for everyone, so that they could have their own space too," she said. Bhandari is open to exploring domestic cruise options as well. “India matches up to international standards, and I think this will work for domestic cruises as well. But the luxury has to be at par for it to do well," she said.

Another factor to keep in mind is that a cruise doesn’t let you chalk your own itinerary. Once you are aboard the ship, you have limited activities and options available. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that some cruises do multi-destination stop-overs to let passengers take day trips. “Expedition cruises usually have fewer activities since they focus more on exploring destinations. Leisure ships are designed to be the main attraction themselves with all the activities and facilities available within the cruise," said Anand Menon, brand leader, Travel Tours, FCM Travel Solutions.

On the whole, Indian holiday-makers haven’t quite taken to cruises yet. In fact, a significant portion of cruise bookings in India are not by vacationers at all. “Indians prefer freestyle cruising and all-inclusive cruise packages with clear demarcation of costs. Around 50% of guests opting for a cruise are family and friends wanting to spend their vacation at leisure while 40% are for meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions and 10% consists of special interest groups such as religious groups or education based groups," said Bailom.

But the trend is changing slightly, especially among the younger generation. “What’s interesting is the fact that we are home to the youngest cruising market globally, with an average age of the booker being approximately 35 years," said the MakeMyTrip spokesperson.

Cruising is a growing industry in India and given the country’s diversity and wealth of pristine beaches and coastlines, it is likely to become a favoured holiday option eventually.

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