A luxury ship will make history when it sets sail from India’s spiritual city of Varanasi on Friday on a voyage that the country’s leader says will help usher in a new age of tourism in the subcontinent.
The MV Ganga Vilas is scheduled to travel 3,200 kilometers along the waterway in India and Bangladesh, making it the longest river cruise in the world, according to organizers.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promoted the cruise as one of the centerpieces of his government’s flagship infrastructure initiative agenda, will go digital to send the ship off in style.
From there, the ship will travel along the Ganges, India’s most sacred river, and other waterways through five states in western India, then to neighboring Bangladesh, visiting national parks, UNESCO World Heritage sites and major cities along the way.
In a speech delivered by Modi on December 30, the prime minister mentioned the cruise as part of a growing trend that could bring more visitors to his country.
“It will be an unprecedented cruise of its kind across the world,” Modi said. “It will also be a reflection of the growing travel tourism (industry) in India.”
MV Ganga Vilas will carry 36 passengers in 18 suites, according to Antara, which owns and operates the cruise ship, plus about 48 crew members.
Although it is called Ganga in English, in India the river is called Ganges, hence the boat’s nickname.
The cruise was originally planned for 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic. It was launched in Europe and according to the organizers the first round of passengers come from Switzerland, France and other countries.
Kashif Siddiqui, director of sales and marketing at Antara, told CNN that the plan is to operate the cruise itinerary twice a year between October and March, when the weather is better and the water level in the river is high.
He says tickets for two planned 2024 cruises are already sold out.
Tickets cost between 4.2 million and 4.5 million rupees each, which works out to $51,114 to $54,765 per guest.
MV Ganga Vilas’ 51 days on the water include stops in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, the Sundarbans mangrove forest (shared by both countries) and India’s Kaziranga National Park, home to the one-horned rhinoceros.
The ship’s interiors were inspired by the work of the 20th century German painter Josef Albers.
River cruising has long been a fixture in Europe and several companies regularly ply the waters of the Danube, Rhine and Seine as well as in North America.
But it’s a fairly new offering in India, which is well on its way to surpassing China to claim the title of the world’s most populous country.
River cruising provides a way to get to more rural destinations that don’t have a major airport or highway and can bring much-needed tourism revenue to those communities.
However, there are issues holding the industry back. India’s rivers – especially the Ganga – continue to face serious pollution. This affects the daily lives of millions of Indians, especially low-income people living in densely populated urban centers like Varanasi.
In 2014, the government launched the ongoing National Mission for a Clean Ganga initiative – also referred to as the Namami Gange Project – to address the major contributors to the pollution of the country’s longest river.
Increased opportunities for excursion tourism
According to the Economic Times, India has eight river cruise ships capable of traveling between Varanasi and Kolkata.
Plans are afoot to increase opportunities for river cruise tourism in India, with 10 passenger boat terminals being built along the National Waterway-2, an 891 kilometer stretch of the Brahmaputra River.
The operator of the MV Ganga Vilas Antara offers several luxury cruises that are much shorter.
One route from Calcutta to Murshidabad in West Bengal takes eight days and costs 292,875 rupees ($3,500), while a voyage from Calcutta to Varanasi takes 12 days and costs 437,250 rupees ($5,300).
Siddiqui tells CNN that the company’s future plans go beyond rivers. Their next project is a lake cruise in Kashmir, a troubled region divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both countries.
Although 51 days is a record for a river cruise, this achievement pales next to some of the boat-sized itineraries available on ocean cruises.
The world’s longest cruise, the 245-day trip, which departed from London in 2019, visited six continents.
Above: Exterior of cruise ship MV Ganga Vilas. Photo courtesy of Antara Cruises.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. company. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
THE-CNN-WIRE ™ & © 2023 CABLE NEWS NETWORK, INC., A TIME WARNER COMPANY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.