Union Tourism Secretary Rashmi Verma is a 1982 batch Bihar cadre IAS officer. She had served earlier as Chairman & Managing Director of Bihar Tourism as well as Additional Director in the Union Ministry of Tourism. At present the ministry is envisaging great in cruise tourism. A cruise is likely to be operated in Varanasi as well as one from Kolkata to Varanasi and one from Goa to Cochin.

The Ministry will also encourage homeporting of international cruises, according to Verma, to tap the demand from Indian tourists wanting to travel in cruise liners for which they have to spend more as they have to travel to Dubai and Singapore. In an interview to ABHIJEET ANAND, Verma said the Ministry of Tourism is in talks with all four major cruise operators of the world. She also spoke of the other initiatives that have been made to promote tourism. Excerpts:

Q: What is the projected revenue that Ministry of Tourism will get from cruise tourism?

A: The ministry will not get any revenue. It is the cruise liners that will get revenue. Indian economy will benefit out of it. But we are not going to run cruises on our own, it is the private sector that will do so. As per the figures we have in 2017-18, 139 cruise vessels called on Indian ports handling 1.74 lakh passengers. We are hopeful that in the next three years, it is going to at least double. There is a lot of potential as far as cruise tourism is concerned. We have estimated that if we have a low growth scenario, the number of cruise vessels porting here will increase to 219 in the coming 20 to 25 years. If there is a mid-growth scenario, it will increase to 579 and in a high-growth scenario, it will increase to 945.

Q: Are you saying that foreign tourist arrivals will also increase?

A: Certainly, because these cruises bring (them) in…most of them are foreign tourists. When they come and port in our terminals, then they get off and they take a round of the cities, etc.

Q: At present only one cruise vessel, Costa, is home-porting in India. What is being done to incentivise home-porting of international cruises?

A: Lots of steps have been taken. Lots of incentives have been given. Tax has been reduced. We are building infrastructure at six ports. Tourism Ministry has given funds to various port trusts. Separate berths for porting of passenger cruises are being built at many other places. Terminals on the lines of ports are being built. Tax incentives are being proposed. We have taken it up with the Finance Ministry. It is yet to be agreed to, but we are proposing it. Standard operating procedures have been put in place.

Immigration facilities have been sorted out. So, it has become much faster. A lot of incentives have been taken up already. E-visa facility is being extended to them. No biometrics are required. Separate immigration counters have been built. So, that’s a lot of facilities. If we are able to get some tax incentives, then it will be good.

Q:Are you referring to GST?

A: (Yes) GST… Specially customs duty on the food and beverages which are consumed on board. When a vessel travels from one point to another on a cruise, all those consumables are levied customs duty. We have asked them to do away with that. And, give some relief from GST also.

Q: Has any meeting been held of the GST Council on this issue?

A: Both Ministry of Shipping and Ministry of Tourism have sent recommendations to Ministry of Finance. We have held meetings with Finance Secretary and Minister of Finance also. They are now going to take up the issue in the Council meeting.

Q: The Shipping Ministry has given a corpus of Rs 250 crore. How is this being used by Ministry of Tourism?

A: They are using it basically for infrastructure. And also because of the fact that port duty has been reduced, it has been given as a corpus to port authorities.

Q: Have you worked out the model on which the cruises will be operated?

A: There are two types of things which we are looking at. World over, there are four major cruise operators, including Costa. One is cruises which are lodging in other countries. Passengers are brought and home porting happens here. They are here for a day or two. And then they go back. What we are now focusing on is that some cruises start from Indian ports.

Because there is a lot of interest among Indian tourists. They fly to Dubai or Singapore to get into a cruise vessel. That much of time and money will be saved if the cruises start at Indian ports. From that point of view, many cruise operators have shown interest. We have certain reservations over taxes. Otherwise most of them have agreed. So once the infrastructure is built, three years down the line they do look at the possibility of starting cruises from Indian ports.

Q: So, the ministry is focusing on infrastructure and it will allow private sector?

A: Yes infrastructure development, and we are also focusing majorly on marketing … and telling people who are the relevant cruise operators. This is the kind of facility we have. We have started participating in international fairs ~ dedicated fairs for promotion of cruise tourism. That kind of marketing has already started. Both shipping and tourism are focusing on infrastructure development and giving some incentives to the cruise operators to bring them to India.

Q: Which private cruise operators are you in discussion with?

A: We are in discussion with Costa, of course. It is the biggest player. Two-three players are there. I cannot remember off-hand. But, we are in talks with all the four major international cruise operators.

Q: Is there also a plan to start cruises within the country like in Varanasi and from Goa to Cochin and on other routes?

A: Within the country we are planning to start cruises. Some Indian operators are also interested. It is not only the international players. Some islands in Andamans have been identified by Ministry of Tourism where again three types of cruises, including international and Indian cruises will be coming.

Q: What is the progress in development of tourism circuits on the basis of themes?

A: We have 15 theme-based circuits identified on Swadesh Darshan. So far, seventy projects have been sanctioned. In all the states there are one or two projects. The first completed project was inaugurated in Imphal. We are planning to get projects inaugurated in Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Chhattisgarh. All in all, by the end of this calendar year, 30 projects will be completed. The rest will be completed by the end of the financial year.

Q: What is the progress on Ramayana and Krishna circuits?

A: In the Ramayana circuit, we have sanctioned one project in Ayodhya, UP and one in Bihar. In Ayodhya, work has started. Work is yet to start in Buxar and Sitamarhi in Bihar. On Krishna circuit, we have sanctioned two projects in UP and one or two in Rajasthan. Work is in progress in these circuits.

Q: Are Yoga and Ayurveda being used to promote tourism?

A: We have a new promotional film made on both Yoga and Ayurveda. We are using it on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Internationally, we are also promoting it. We are getting excellent response.

Q:What steps are being taken to extend the benefit of GST to tourists if they use hotels?

A: You already know that the rates have come down, the slabs have come down for hotels. Only hotel rooms which are above Rs 7,500 are charged 28 per cent GST and that too on the declared rates. Therefore, lot of relief has already been given by the GST Council. We are suggesting to Ministry of Finance that the GST paid on goods and services should be reimbursed to tourists as is happening in many countries.