Until early 2020, cruises were the fastest growing sector of the travel industry worldwide, with demand having increased by 20% over the last five years. In 2018, it was estimated that the world cruise industry was worth approximately US$ 150 billion with over 50 cruise lines operating more than 270 ships in the world. The influence of the cruise industry on a country’s economy can be far-reaching, as it provides substantial employment opportunities for crew members and many small businesses rely heavily on the positive multiplier effect major cruise liners create for the local and national economies.
In 2019, 39 cruise brands were active in Asian waters, deploying a total of 79 ships. These ships provided 1,786 cruises in 2019 with 131 voyages. Many destinations in Asia, especially India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, witnessed a growth in the number of cruise calls.
India showed a stronger five-year CAGR compared to Asia’s average. In 2019, ports in India handled a total of 284 port calls, which included some domestic cruises as well. The Indian cruise market grew at a rate of 22% between 2014 and 2019, which was higher than the overall Asian market, which grew by 14%.
Most countries across the world closed their borders to ships arriving from foreign ports and all foreign-flagged ships were directed to leave their waters. While passengers were quarantined on board for almost a month before being repatriated, a large number of crew members of various nationalities were stranded on board cruise ships across the world.
The cruise industry worldwide was adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic ever since early 2020, when the first outbreak of a case took place on board The Diamond Princess in the Western Pacific. The vessel was quarantined off Japan for two weeks, after which all the remaining passengers and crew were evacuated. Of the 3,711 people on board, 712 became infected with the virus, 567 of the 2666 passengers and 145 of the 1045 crew.
The sudden cessation of cruising resulted in the gains made over the past few years being wiped out almost overnight. Cruise lines had to pay a substantial amount of money in refunds for cancellations and incurred costs associated with docking ships at ports where ships are quarantined. While most cruise ships around the world had to be temporarily withdrawn from service, they still had to operate essential machinery continuously to provide power for onboard services, such as air conditioning, desalination and propulsion. This was necessary to maintain the vessels in good shape. Thus, the lines incurred operating and maintenance costs even when the ships were not sailing. Non-essential staff were repatriated to their home countries to save costs. Some lines had to borrow large sums of money to sustain operations, even with skeleton crews. As time passed, this led to frustration amongst crew members still on the ships, and the cruise lines became desperate to repatriate them to their native countries. As a result, during 2020 alone, 34 ships were sold from one cruise line to another or just sold for scrap.
There was a complete cessation of cruise ship calls from April 2020 till September 2021. Subsequently, cruise lines have staggered the resumption of operations across the world in regions where COVID-19 restrictions have been eased, predominantly in the Caribbean, some parts of the Mediterranean and the South-East Atlantic. The USA and some European countries have permitted recommencement of cruising in a big way, with major companies alluring guests with large discounts and freebies. Early 2022 will see a near normalisation of operations in most parts of the world, albeit with COVID appropriate behaviour and strict protocols. Ships have had to make significant changes to facilities on board, ranging from restrictions in the number of guests that can be accommodated, changes in arrangements for dining and entertainment, plus the introduction of SOPs for shore excursions and procedures to be followed if a COVID positive case is detected on board a ship while at sea.
Cruise lines have partly set the rules themselves. In general, operators require guests to be fully vaccinated. The current COVID-19 environment has created a high degree of concern amongst the public surrounding the maintenance of health and safety on board cruise ships. Ships now require robust screening and monitoring protocols, implementation of comprehensive sanitation practices with regular inspections, expanded on-board medical facilities and more medical staff. Also, the cruise liners are required to work closely with public health authorities at each destination.
Thus, there was a sense of pleasant happiness when Cordelia Cruises commenced domestic cruise operations in India from September 2021. J. M. Baxi & Co. has been appointed agents for the ship MS Empress, which will be making about 300 calls at Indian ports such Mumbai, Goa, Cochin, Kadmatt Island and Diu over the next two years. The ship arrived at Mumbai and made her maiden voyage on 16 September 21.
Although most international cruise lines have cancelled their calls to India for the ongoing 2021/22 season (September to May), there is a positive trend of bookings for the ensuing seasons from September 2022. Successful cruising by Cordelia Cruises will demonstrate to the world that India, led by J. M. Baxi & Co., is ready to handle calls by international cruise lines in compliance with the strict and structured health protocols promulgated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and other governing bodies across the world.
The national lockdown did, however, give some ports the opportunity to enhance their infrastructure and support facilities. While Chennai and New Mangalore already had passenger terminals to handle traffic commensurate with the size of ships calling there, Kochi Port inaugurated a brand-new passenger terminal in February 2021. Goa intends to build a passenger terminal, for which the bidding process will shortly begin.
Mumbai is the single largest cruise port in India today. Accordingly, the Mumbai Port Trust is in the process of constructing a new Mumbai International Cruise Terminal (MICT) at the Ballard Pier Extension (BPX) with state-of-the-art facilities to prepare for the rising demand plus increasing traffic from cruise passengers. MICT is the first cruise terminal in the nation built to international standards. The cruise building will be a four-storey structure to serve not only cruise passengers but also SoBo visitors. The J M BAXI Group has won the rights to develop this project, which is due to be commissioned by 2023. The terminal is being planned to provide cruise passengers with a first-class experience based on the latest technology. Moreover, it will be a waterfront destination in the prime location of South Mumbai and will exploit the excellent sea views that the site offers. Once commissioned, Ballard Pier will be a new uber-luxury destination in Mumbai, promoting cruise tourism and domestic luxury experiences.