Mumbai-Goa travellers may have the sea route as an option soon. But, big cruise operators need much better facilities for vessels to berth and upscale terminals for tourists to alight at, to take in the famed sights of Goa
One of the most exciting things about making the trip from Mumbai to Goa back in the 1970s and 1980s was travelling by ships leaving Mumbai in the morning. After travelling for 24 hours, one would arrive in Goa, the next morning.
OCEAN EYE: Gateway of India will be one of the spots from where the cruise ships will sail. Pic/Suresh KK
What a magical trip that used to be! The passengers were a motley group of Goans, tourists, hippies, Konkan coast travellers, all in a festive, picnic-like mood. Out would come guitars and other instruments, along with packed food, and it would be one long party all the way as the ship would make various halts at Vengurla, Malvan, Ratnagiri and other place, to take on more passengers who would arrive in large hand-rowed canoes, which would then take the disembarking passengers. The entire experience used to be like a brief cruise boat excursion, say old-timers.
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The Konkan ships
Then the two steamers — Konkan Shakti and Konkan Sevak, were co-opted for the Sri Lanka War in the late 1980s, and the party was over. One of them is now somewhere in the Andaman Islands. Although, Damania Shipping started a hovercraft service on the same route in the early 1990s, it was never really the same thing. By then the Konkan Railway had started train services along the Konkan, followed by the era of mass air travel, so those boats and the dreamy journey along the Konkan coast were all forgotten.
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But getting to Goa by ship is going to start again sometime soon, with the Mumbai-based Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) inviting ‘expressions of interest’ more than two months ago. Parag Jain Nainuttia, CEO of MMB, says the new service is expected to start soon. “We had published a public notice inviting ‘expressions of interest’ from those desirous of starting a passenger ship service between Mumbai and Goa around two months ago. Four parties had approached us for discussions and now they have to prepare and give us their DPRs (Detailed Project Reports). One party is from Delhi, while others are based in Mumbai. After we receive the DPRs then only we will be able to move forward,” he says.
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The ships will have a minimum capacity of 150 plus, he says, while one party has proposed to start with a 250-capacity ship. “We are looking at all options and are even ready to partner with the private company to share the financial risk of starting this new service. They have to see the viability of the route, the cost of passenger tickets and other factors,” says Nainuttia. He confirms being in touch with his counterparts in Goa, and is hopeful the service becomes a reality soon.
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In Goa, meanwhile, the dilapidated old Captain of Ports jetty in the heart of Panjim, where old ships used to dock, has been reconstructed in anticipation of the resumption of the boat service. The jetty had fallen into disrepair after the Mumbai-Goa boat service had been discontinued. Some of the Goan pork sausage vendors who used to sell their crimson sausage rolls to departing Goans continued to be there, though. The Captain of Ports, James Braganza, said the new jetty is ready for all practical purposes and is already being used by small vessels.
Braganza says they have been in discussions with their Maharashtra counterparts regarding the resumption of the boat service and is hopeful things will start soon.
“The jetty is completed. There are just a few small things left. We're already using the facility. This is the first phase. In the second phase, we are building a new terminal building, which should be ready in about another 18 months time. They can make provisions for disembarking passengers despite there being no terminal building there,” he says.
Goa’s tourism minister Dilip Parulekar says it will be a great way for tourists to arrive in Goa from Mumbai. “The Maharashtra authorities were waiting for the jetty to be completed. The jetty is almost ready and should be fully functional by January. Then they will come to us with a formal proposal and we will take it from there,” he says.
But there are other cruise boats already operational on the Mumbai-Goa route, and more will be coming in the days ahead. A couple of years ago, the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT), the main port in Goa, built a dedicated cruise boat jetty at the MPT harbour for large cruise boats and luxury yachts, which have been visiting Goa in the last three years. In August, Union Minister of State for Tourism Shripad Naik, who represents North Goa in the Lok Sabha, laid the foundation for a new cruise terminal building at the MPT. It is expected to be ready by December 2015. Talking during the launch, Shripad said they want to make Goa the hub for cruise tourism in western India, and expects the number of cruise ships to rise.
Sensing the potential for cruise tourism in India, a few global cruise boat operators like Royal Caribbean, have started cruises which start from Dubai and stop over for a day at Mumbai, Goa (MPT), Mangalore, Kochi, Colombo etc. These ships, carrying around 1,500-2,000 people arrive at the port in the morning where the tourists disembark and go sight-seeing or shopping. One tour in Goa takes them for a day on the beach at the nearby Bogmalo Beach. Another takes them on a two-hour drive through the scenic countryside to the Dudhsagar Waterfall and they also get to visit a spice plantation.
However, around half the tourists prefer to simply walk around the port city, Vasco and Mormugao, to soak in the local sights and do some shopping, before boarding the ship again in the evening. But their experience of visiting the port city has been disappointing, according to travel agents, who point out that there are hardly any designer boutiques or fancy dining options in the port city. The first 25 cruise boats which docked at MPT had to berth at a place which is normally used for unloading coal and other such material, which leaves the entire area enveloped in dust. Tourists alighting there had to trudge through all that dust to go on their sightseeing trips and excursions. Though, MPT built a dedicated berth for cruise boats the following year, alighting tourists still had to navigate their way through the large port area which can at best be described as filthy.
In fact, cruise boat arrivals in Goa have been on a downward trajectory ever since the first cruise boat docked at MPT three tourist seasons ago. According to Goa’s Tourism Department, 25 cruise vessels had docked at MPT during the 2011-12 season, which reduced to 24 cruise vessels in the 2012-13 season and slid further down to 17 cruise vessels in the 2013-14 season, with the passenger count dropping 50 per cent from 22,233 in 2011-12 to 11,356 in 2013-14. Those familiar with international cruise boat operations say Goa needs an exclusive cruise boat terminal if it wants cruise boats to still come calling. The reason why the Goa government is still persisting with MPT as a cruise terminal is because the port has been in financial trouble ever since a ban on iron ore mining in Goa two years ago, resulting in its main business of iron ore export coming to a grinding halt.
Dixon Vaz, President, Goan Seamen Association of India and works on board ships for Carnival Cruises, says this is a big mistake. “I have spoken to cruise passengers who were very disappointed with the stop in Vasco because they have heard that Goa is so beautiful with amazing beaches, but they have not seen them. So when they fill the (feedback) survey after the cruise they give Goa a very low rating and that is the reason the cruise ships are not stopping in Goa,” says Vaz who has visited 80 countries while working as a Food & Beverages (F & B) manager onboard cruise ships.
“Now Asia is a huge market for the cruise industry and most of the cruise lines are deploying the ships in Asia but they are skipping Goa due to the lack of proper facilities for the passengers. Vasco is not the ideal place for cruise tourism, as it is not well connected to the tourist places in Goa, plus the infrastructure is not the best. Ships are docked only for a few hours. It takes hours in traffic to go for a tour and back because most of the tours are around Panjim, spice plantation, temples and Old Goa. Sixty per cent of the passengers do not go on a tour everyday and would like to spend time within walking distance away from the ship and back, but Vasco does not have proper walking paths,” he says.
“But if the pier is in Candolim or the Baga stretch, it will be an excellent destination because of the facilities like water sports, beach shacks and will bring huge revenue to everyone. A simple pier is required and not a huge terminal. I am on a ship of celebrity cruises with a capacity of 3,000 guests and 1,200 crew and these ships are just docking on a simple pier in many ports,” says Vaz.
The association has also provided examples of how similar simple piers have been constructed in other tourist destinations and said that it would add to the tourism potential of Goa as well as create job opportunities for Goans. “Recently, many American companies have deployed their cruise ships out of Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but such companies have not chosen Goa due to lack of facilities but instead chose Mangalore and Cochin, who have built a special cruise port and other related facilities,” adds Vaz.
In Mumbai, the MMB is building two marinas for cruise boats and yachts at the Gateway of India and at Badlapur, according to Nainuttia. He says this will go a long way to promote cruise tourism along the scenic Konkan coast of Maharashtra. Marinas have also been planned in Goa, but there is opposition by local fishermen who fear that they will be marginalised.
During the days of the old Mumbai-Goa steamer service, nobody had heard of cruise tourism, but the experience was, in a way, quite similar. After all it is a special feeling to set sail. Dixon Vaz says, “I remember the Konkan Sevak ship service from Goa to Mumbai was a joy ride. I was a kid and still have fond memories of that journey.”