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It's a smooth sail from now on for foreign luxury cruise liners that choose India as a destination. To promote cruise tourism, in the absence of Indian flags sailing in this segment, the shipping ministry has altered cabotage laws to allow foreign flag cruise vessels calling at more than one Indian port to sail without obtaining permits or licences from the director-general shipping.

Union shipping minister Shatrughan Sinha said that this facility had been granted for five years, by activating Clause 3 of Section 407 of The Merchant Shipping Act.

Mr Sinha has also given the go-ahead for the reduction of vessel-related charges for cruise ships by 50%. "The 50% reduction is mandatory, though individual ports can further reduce charges below this under competitive pressures if they so desire," he added. Permission to set up high standard international cruise terminals at Mumbai, Cochin, New Mangalore and Tuticorin has also been given by the minister to respective port trusts.

Data with the shipping ministry shows that 12,424 tourists were carried in cruise vessels calling at Mumbai, Cochin, Mormugao, New Manager and Tuticorin in 2002-03. This reflects a drop from 19,318 tourists in 2001-02 and a significant drop from 40,287 tourists in 2000-01. Last season, the Iraq War and the SARS epidemic forced many liners to change itinerary or bypass Indian ports, resulting in just a dozen liners calling at Indian ports. This season there has been some improvement, with double the number of liners including India in their itinerary.

Large cruise lines such as Queen Elizabeth II, Silver Shadow Deutshland, Seaborne Spirit, Europa and Star Princess are reportedly visiting Indian ports during the cruise season that commences in November 2003 and ends in April 2004.

According to Section 407 (i), no ship other than an Indian ship or a ship chartered by a citizen of India shall engage in the coasting trade of the India except under a licence granted by the director-general shipping. Clause 3 allows the Centre powers to revoke this provision for any part of India's coasting trade by a general or special order.

The term 'coasting trade of India' means the carriage by sea of passengers or goods from any port or place in India to any other port or place on the Indian subcontinent. With these fresh incentives, especially the relaxation of existing cabotage laws, cruise tourism in India appears set for better days ahead.

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