Luxurious water vessels have become a popular choice for travellers, and the industry is rising up to meet the soaring demand by adding 50 deluxe launches to its fleets within the next year.
Industry heavyweights, such as the Nizam Shipping Lines and Parabat, are investing around Tk1,000 crore to expand their fleets, said sources from the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Passengers Carrier Association (BIWPCA).
According to the BIWPCA, the number of people travelling by river routes to the southern part of the country, especially to Barisal, is increasing, and service providers have already invested around Tk4,000 crore to add 200 luxury launches to their fleets in the last five years.
In the fiscal year 2017-18, around 29 crore passengers travelled by river routes in the country – which increased to 31 crore in fiscal year 2018-19.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, due to the countrywide shutdown imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, communication by river routes was stopped for four months. However, against a target of 35 crore, around 25 crore passengers used waterways to reach their destinations.
Speaking with The Business Standard (TBS), Nizam Shipping Lines' owner and Managing Director Nizam Uddin said, "Luxurious launches, which are set to join our fleet soon, will boost people's interest in travelling."
"These launches will not only ensure a comfortable and adventurous journey for passengers, but will also be safer than any other form of travel," he added.
Nizam's company has also built a luxury launch which will join its fleet in January 2021.
Providing more details, Nizam said, "A luxurious launch can be compared to a star-rated hotel because the vessels are built with modern facilities such as attractive interior design, comfortable beds, spacious balconies, and restrooms with full amenities."
"The luxurious vessels are much safer because they have radars, echo sounders, electronic chart display information systems, GPS receivers, and gyro compass systems for ensuring a safe and secure journey through the rivers," he said while discussing the safety features.
Though many of the new launches have already been built, they are unable to begin providing passenger services due to the pandemic, said BIWPCA Senior Vice President Bodiuzzaman Badal.
He added that presently, about 250 luxury passenger ships are providing services in different southern districts including: Barisal, Jhalakathi, Bhola, Pirojpur, Patuakhali, Barguna, Chandpur, and Madaripur.
The most luxurious and biggest launches usually operate on the Dhaka-Barisal river route, Badal mentioned.
About the seating facilities on luxury launches on this route, MV Parabat's owner Shahidul Islam said there are several kinds of seating. The fare is Tk200 each for the deck, Tk500 for a sofa, Tk800-Tk1,000 for a single cabin, Tk1,500-Tk1,800 for a double cabin, Tk2,000-Tk3,000 for a family cabin, and Tk5,000-Tk10,000 for a VIP cabin.
The passenger capacity of such vessels is between 1,000 and 1,500 people.
Shahidul continued, "Building a new ship takes two to four years to complete, and requires an investment of Tk20-30 crore depending on size and capacity. However, as per the law, the length of a ship can be a maximum of 296 feet, but there is no restriction on width."
"Normally the existing big launches are 54-60 feet wide," he added.
A ship takes six to ten years to return the amount of total investment, said BIWPCA leader Badal, adding that the lifespan of a ship is 30 years, and can be extended to 10 years more, through two renewals spanning five years each.
Challenges in the sector
Speaking about challenges in this sector, MV Parabat's owner Shahidul Islam told TBS that there is a shortage of skilled masters and drivers in Bangladesh and the industry is not getting any bank loans.
Meanwhile, Bodiuzzaman Badal, senior vice president of the BIWPCA, said, "Dredging is not being conducted properly, so there is a lack of navigability. The government authorities are also delaying the salvage operations of sunken ships which pose a risk to launches during voyages.
"Further, unplanned mining in the name of sand lifting is becoming dangerous. Also, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) does not place directional markers properly on the river," he continued.
Most importantly, shelters are needed to provide a place for ships to stop during rough weather but the country does not have any. The government took an initiative in this regard in 2000, but it has not been implemented as yet, Badal added.
The BIWPCA leader added that dredging is being carried out throughout the year, but the move is unplanned and only wasting state money as we are not getting the benefits.
Regarding this issue, BIWTA Chairman Commodore Golam Sadeq said, "We are working to increase navigability and we have already removed the submerged ships from the routes."
About markers, he said, sometimes the master and driver do not notice the markers because of their negligence or the markers having fallen after colliding with fishing boats.
Sadeq emphasised that the ships have echo sounder, radar and GPS systems, and a skilled master should easily be able to navigate safely using those systems in any situation.
The BIWTA chairman also said, "We have finished the site selection for shelters and now the design process is underway. I am optimistic that we will be able to call for tenders by January-February next year."