Good news for cross-border cruise lovers.
Your dream of travelling between Bangladesh and India, while also enjoying the beauty of the mystic Sundarbans and the lush green dots of riverine Bangladesh, is about to come true.
In October last year, the shipping ministries of the two countries finalised the Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) for movement of passenger and cruise vessels on the coastal and designated inland routes between the two neighbours.
Cruise service operators are already queuing up for permission, for what stakeholders say would be a boost for tourism business.
Two such operators -- RV Bengal Ganga and Assam Bengal Navigation -- applied to the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) to operate between Kolkata-Dhaka and Guwahati, said BIWTA Joint Director Saiful Islam.
“Recently, we received a letter from the Inland Waterways Authority of India that RV Bengal Ganga wants to start cruise service from Kolkata in March,” he said, adding that the request was forwarded to the shipping ministry.
Relevant ministries will soon sit to discuss preparations of agencies such as customs and immigration, which manage cross-border movement of people and goods, the official said.
Journey Plus, a local tour operator, submitted the application on behalf of Assam Bengal Navigation.
The move brings to mind the memory of the British era in the Indian subcontinent when people from the East and West Bengal as well as Northeastern India could travel by steamers.
Captain Showkat Sarder, general manager (marine) of Bangladesh Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), said there was a steamer service on Assam-Goalanda-Narayanganj-Kolkata-Elahabad route during the British rule.
“It was a 10-day trip. And as far as I know, it came to a halt after the partition in 1947,” said Showkat, who studies the routes of steamer service in the subcontinent.
Officials said passenger and cruise services could be operated through all the eight coastal and eight inland routes between the two countries.
For now, cruise operators have shown interest to use Kolkata-Haldia-Raimongal-Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Kawkhali-Barishal-Hizla-Chandpur-Narayanganj-Aricha-Sirajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri-Pandu-Shilghat (Assam) route, stretching 1,535km, according to BIWTC officials.
Tour operators said the cruise service will considerably increase cross-border movement. It will also attract tourists from other parts of the world.
At the moment, the two countries register movement of more than 15 lakh of their citizens a year, according to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka and immigration office.
Taufiq Rahman, chief executive of Journey Plus, said they planned to sail from Northeastern city of Guwahati and enter Bangladesh through Chilmari river port. On the way, tourists can visit some historical places, including the Jamindar Bari of Rangpur and the Baudha Bihar in Paharpur, a world heritage site, before anchoring in Dhaka.
The vessel will then resume its journey towards the Southern region. On its way, it will pass all three big rivers -- Padma, Meghna and Jamuna -- and touch Chandpur, Barishal and port town Mongla, before entering the Sundarbans on its way to Kolkata.
“It's likely to be a 17-day package,” he said, adding that they planned to operate a cruise in April-May for an experiment.
“The prospects are very bright, given Bangladesh is a riverine country. We also hope to attract a large number of European tourists,” he said.
“Because of the cruise service, tourists will get to go to Kolkata through the Sundarbans.”
Rahman, also a director of the Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh, urged the government to build the required infrastructures for customs, navigation, immigration and other facilities to facilitate their operations.
SK Mahfuz Hamid, chairman of Coastal Ship Owners Association of Bangladesh, said opening of passenger and cruise services will create a big opportunity for the private sector of both countries.
“Thousands of people of Bangladesh and India will take the cruise to see the Sundarbans instead of travelling by air or other means,” he said.
Commodore Syed Ariful Islam, director general of the shipping department, said his office was ready to allow cruise vessels on the coastal waters.
“We are yet to receive any formal proposal from private cruise service operators,” he said, adding that an Indian enterprise showed interests initially. But nothing is official yet.”
Two BIWTC vessels -- MV Bangali and MV Madhumoti -- have the potential to operate as cruise vessels in the coastal and inland waters between the two countries, he said.
“These vessels can operate if they [the BIWTC] take an initiative,” he said.