Laid low by COVID in the last two years, cruise travel is now seeing a rebound. The industry is counting on the upcoming festive period for recovery to reach 75 percent of pre-COVID levels.
All major cruise operators including Royal Caribbean, Dream Cruise and Costa Cruises came back to the market in May-June this year and reopened bookings, said Neeraj Singh Dev, senior vice-president, e-commerce, India, short-haul holidays, Thomas Cook India and SOTC. “This was a strong signal to the consumer that the cruise industry is back,” he told Moneycontrol.
Dev said that after witnessing strong demand in the last few months, he is now counting on the festival season period for which he is seeing a high number of bookings.
“This is the first festive period which will have least COVID-19 fear in travellers’ minds. For Diwali, many cruise liners, especially those from Singapore, are reporting 80 percent occupancy. November being the wedding period, we expect high demand. I think by December, this industry should see recovery of at least 70-75 percent,” he said.
Thomas Cook and SOTC are seeing a 35-40 percent month-on-month uptick for cruise holidays, Dev said. The cruise segment contributes 10-15 percent of the two firms’ leisure travel market.
The single-vessel operator Cordelia Cruises, which began operations last September, is seeing strong forward bookings.
“We are full as forward bookings are strong. Since we started till this September, we had 100,000 guests and by end of this year we will have 170,000 guests,” said Jurgen Bailom, CEO, Waterways Leisure Tourism. Cordelia is owned by Waterways Leisure Tourism.
Festive demand is going to be high given this year will see a ‘no-fear’ travel, a significant shift from ‘cautious’ travel during the same time in the previous years, said Rajat Mahajan, partner, Deloitte India.
Bailom said that in the last three to four months, there has hardly been any chatter about COVID-19 by travellers and they have seen positive demand in the last six to seven months.
Uptick in cruise travel
Dev said that Cordelia Cruises, the eponymous vessel that sails in Indian waters has been a big hit in the domestic market. “Indians used to take cruise holidays from Singapore, Dubai, because India, despite having one of the best coastlines, did not have quality cruise liners. Cordelia, which (was launched) during the pandemic, has seen huge interest from Indian customers. This cruise liner has travelled to Mumbai, Goa, Lakshadweep, Kochi,” said Dev
Thomas Cook and SOTC booked over 3,000 customers for Cordelia when the ship was sailing during the monsoon from Chennai to Visakhapatnam and Puducherry.
“This segment (cruise travel) is likely to grow faster than the overall (travel) industry, albeit on a smaller base. Customer traffic towards cruises is likely to grow 8-10 times, compared to the expected 3-4 times growth in the overall travel and tourism industry,” said Mahajan.
For international destinations, Dev said that the cruise industry has recovered 60-65 percent compared with pre-COVID levels.
In pre-COVID-19 times, India’s cruise tourism was in its prime growth phase, said Nishant Pitti, CEO and co-founder, EaseMyTrip.
“In 2017-2018, 138 ships arrived at the ports in the country carrying 1.76 lakh passengers. This was when the segment witnessed a fourfold growth compared to 2015-16. But with the pandemic, the industry suffered a huge setback,” he said.
Pre-COVID, India was the fastest-growing market, expanding at more than 22 percent, compared to 14 percent at the Asia-Pacific, level but this was wiped out in the first year of COVID, said Mahajan. “Cruise liners had to pay significant money to customers for cancellations and to the ports. To top it, these assets need people and fuel to maintain (the ship), else it starts deteriorating. Many liners were not able to manage this stress and had to be scrapped, while others were acquired at throwaway prices.”
Betting on cruise industry
But this year, the Indian cruise tourism is growing rapidly, said Pitti.
“We started in September 2021 and till December last year we did well. But then there was another COVID spike and the government asked us to stop for some time and the overall travel segment was asked to reduce (the passenger) load factor. We then started ramping up again in February-March this year and started sailing from mid-March. We have learned that India is keen to travel,” said Bailom.
Pitti said that the government expects the Indian cruise market to grow 10-fold in the next 10 years.The government is also enabling cruise travel by focusing on upgrading and modernising infrastructure at seven major ports in the country, said Mahajan. “According to the government, the economic potential of cruise tourism is expected to go up from $110 million to $5.5 billion,” he added.