Why River Cruising Remains an Untapped Adventure for Domestic Tourists in India

Skift Take

India has over 100 declared inland waterways, yet river cruising is still a pretty unexplored travel experience here. In fact, Indians head over to Europe to enjoy river cruises, not willing to try out the ones that are right here at home.

Till a little over a century ago, river cruising was quite prevalent in India until railways took over as a faster means of transport. Cut to now, the activity is back and growing in the country, only now it’s more for leisure, said Raj Singh, chairman of Heritage River Journeys, which operates Antara River Cruises in India. 

“River cruising in India is a new concept now and most people either do not know about it or do not understand its intricacies as it is a combination of cruising, hospitality, and touring,” Singh told Skift. He added that though popular in Europe and Americas, this concept is in a nascent stage in India and this despite the fact that the country has 110 national waterways, of which Antara operates on three.

Raj Singh, Chairman - Heritage River Journeys
Raj Singh, Chairman – Heritage River Journeys

Booming Demand From International Travelers

Since its first sail in 2009 till March 2024, Antara River Cruises has hosted about 20,000 passengers. However, 90% of its patrons are international travelers. 

“We have tried to put India on the world map for river cruises with our Ganga cruises. Moreover, in 2023, we launched the longest river cruise in the world: the 50-day Ganga Vilas cruise that covers a distance of 3200 kms (1990 miles). It travels from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to Dibrugarh in Assam via Dhaka in Bangladesh,” he shared. 

Majority of the travelers that Antara hosts are from the U.S., where river cruising is popular, said Singh. “We also host guests from Europe, the UK, Australia, Turkey and Israel,” he said.

According to Singh, one aspect that tourists enjoy is the intimate nature of these cruises as the vessels are small, ferrying between four to 50 travelers on a single journey, depending on the route and the ship. The company is also set to launch a single-key Nauka Vilas by October this year. 

Singh shared that travelers visiting India usually take a trip to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur and then combine that with a seven-night cruise. Alternatively, they also sometimes opt to club the river cruise with a trip to one city in India and then proceed onwards to Nepal or Bhutan.

“But then there are serious river cruise travelers who travel on our 50-day cruise and those often run full,” he said. 

The Missing Domestic Tourists

The scope for river cruising in India is immense, according to Singh. However, Indian tourists are not aware of this activity. “Some people from India travel to Europe for river cruising, but they are not aware of river cruises in India itself.”

And while they opt for seven-night river cruises while traveling internationally, in India, domestic tourists prefer two- or three-night cruises. This is what led the company to launch short cruises in Varanasi and Odisha.

The government has also been working with private companies to increase awareness of river cruising. In the 1980s, the government had formed the Inland Waterways Authority of India to develop routes for cargo transportation through rivers, promoting rivers for cargos. River cruises are now a part of the authority’s mandate. 

“But we still have a long way to go as far as domestic cruising is concerned,” said Singh. He is also looking to introduce short cruises in popular tourist destinations like Goa and Kashmir, which are likely to attract Indian tourists.

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