On the night of March 29 last year, a cruise ship named MV Madhumati, with a capacity of 750 passengers, set sail experimentally from Dhaka amid fanfare. A crowd of sixty-one excited passengers, mostly delegates, boarded the cruise ship destined for Kolkata with a lot of expectations.
The state-owned passenger ship, with a crew of 55, normally plies between Dhaka to Morrelganj in Khulna. And despite the large accommodation facilities and crew, passengers were dissatisfied with the ship's service.
"The ship was congested as it was mainly a passenger cruise. I am not happy with the facilities, either," said Asaduzzaman Prince, a passenger on the MV Madhumati.
A government officer on the ship complained that the cruise lacked necessary services such as Wi-Fi and television. "We were disconnected from the world," he added.
Regardless of the ship's flaws, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) spent nearly Tk1.5 crore on the vessel. But this was the first and the last trip the cruise ship made.
Since the halt, BIWTC has been waiting for the private sector to apply for running river cruises on this route. And despite many companies showing interest, none has applied formally to the state-run water transport regulatory body, Commodore Golam Sadeq, the chairman of BIWTC, told The Business Standard.
"Some private companies have a few cruise ships, but none are of international standard," the chairman of BIWTC added.
Meanwhile, the Indian privately-owned luxury cruise ship RV Bengal Ganga set off from Kolkata with 6 European and 13 Indian passengers on the same night.
With a capacity of 58 passengers, the RV Bengal Ganga offered its passengers high-end tourist facilities onboard such as a salon, sundeck, and spa.
The luxury cruise was routed for plying between Kolkata and Dhaka. It stopped at multiple tourist destinations like Karamjol - the floating market in the Sundarbans, heading towards Chandpur's wholesale fish market, and finally anchoring at the Jamdani Village in Naryanganj. These stops acted as checkpoints for the passengers to experience the heritage of Bangladesh up-close.
While the Indian luxury cruise ship stopped at several tourist destinations, the Bangladeshi MV Madhumati made only two – first in Barisal for supplies and secondly in India's Hemnagar for customs and immigration check. Many tourists complained that the shortage of stops in MV Madhumati barred them from experiencing the southern region of Bangladesh.
Unlike Bangladesh, India was doing better in contrast, although their ships were not plying on this route as scheduled. These ships only set sail once tourists booked it for cruising. India's abundance of luxurious river cruise ships of international standard, which Bangladesh lacks, is another factor for their comparative success.
As a result, Bangladesh failed to tap into the river cruise sector despite potential and prospects. But the government does not plan on purchasing any cruise ship of its own. Rather, it wants the private sector to take over.
In the meantime, another luxurious cruise ship MV Mahabaabu, in September, from Kolkata to Assam, sailed through the Brahmaputra river.
A total of eight passengers - two Canadian, two Indian, two British and two American citizens, boarded the MV Mahabaabu, making stops at Dhaka, Chandpur and the Sundarbans.
The luxury cruise ship was all set to make the 13-day trip from Kolkata to Assam.
Why it failed
According to experts, the Dhaka-Kolkata river cruise is a loss project as passengers do not think sailing is the most feasible travel method to go to Kolkata. They think trains and busses are better options.
But they think the main cause for the Bangladeshi cruise ship's failure is the lack of international standard facilities.
"People want to board cruise ships to experience luxury", Taufiq Rahman, Chief Executive of Journey Plus, a tourism agency, said.
"The government will have to take the industry seriously to profit from this opportunity," Said Mojib Uddin Ahamed, professor of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at the University of Dhaka, said.
Talking to The Business Standard, NSM Shahadat Ali, director of BIWTC, said, "The maiden journey was a trial run. The MV Madhumati is not fit to ply on such a long route."
"We need passenger-friendly ships on this route," he added.
Tour operators' sources say around 100,000 tourists – mainly from Europe, America and Japan, visit Bangladesh annually.
"When tourists will get a chance to visit the world's largest delta – the Ganges, the mangrove forest and the way locals of these areas live, they will feel more inclined to board the cruise ships," Masud Hasan, former advisor to the Tour Operators' Association of Bangladesh, said.
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, the state minister for shipping, told The Business Standard he believes the Dhaka-Kolkata river cruise route has prospects, adding, "That is why the government plans to operate cruise ships on this route and keep the waterway open."
Despite prospect and potential, the government of Bangladesh has not taken any decision to purchase cruise ships. Rather, the government wants the private sector to invest in the sector and run ships along this route.