Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala's most publicised adventure to cross the seas to reach the Gulf had ended tamely when Dasan and Vijayan, two unemployed youths tricked by conman Gafoor, had swam to the shores of Chennai thinking it was the Dubai beach (in the 1987 movie 'Nadodikkattu'). Now, the Kerala government is seriously thinking of transporting Malayalis from Beypore to the UAE and back in a passenger ship.
This is an adventurous move, driven by the excessive increase in flight charges by airline companies during festivals and school vacations. "Airline companies are mercilessly fleecing ordinary non-resident Malayalis, especially during the vacation season. These non-residents suffer the unfortunate plight of having to set aside a lion's share of their earnings for travel," minister for ports Ahammad Devarkovil said.
He was inaugurating a high-level meeting jointly convened by the Kerala Maritime Board (KMB) and Malabar Development Council (MDC) in Thiruvananthapuram on May 3 to take forward the passenger ship service project.
If the project materialises, it would be the first such passenger ship service to a foreign country from India. A passenger ship is unlike a cruise ship that is designed mostly for luxury and is highly costly.
From Beypore to Dubai, over the waters, is over 4000 km. The passenger ships, moving at 35 km per hour, would cover the distance, bridge the gulf, in three and a half days. These ships will have reasonable boarding facilities for passengers.
The passenger costs are yet to be worked out. However, top sources in Norka-ROOTS said it could be between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 per passenger, less than half the flight charges during peak season. A Kochi-Dubai ticket was charged Rs 55,000 this January.
A private player, Ananthapuri Shipping and Logistics Private Limited, has made a presentation before the NORKA-ROOTS, KMB and MDC. Ananthapuri Shipping now charters cargo ships. This is their first attempt to charter passenger ships.
"We can charter passenger ships of any capacity, from 300 to 3000, and in various categories from three to seven stars. But it will depend on the passenger projection of the Kerala government," said Murukan V, the managing director of Ananthapuram Shipping and Logistics.
Murukan said that there were two ways in which passenger ships, mostly owned by European shipping magnates, could be chartered. Voyage Charter and Time Charter.
Rich individuals who would want passenger ships for exclusive and short-term uses would opt for Voyage Charter. Passenger ships are available only in places like Europe. So the ship will have to be first brought from Europe to a destination in India, which in itself is prohibitively costly, and then taken for recreational or other purposes. This would be unthinkable as a budget travel option.
"Time Charter is the practical option for Kerala," Murukan said. The ships can be chartered for days or months under this process, mostly like renting a car for days on end. The longer the charter the lower the cost.
"One round trip, from Beypore to Dubai and back, will take 10 days if the rest days are also factored in. This way, in one month, I can take three trips. So in three months, I can take nine to ten trips. So the huge cost of bringing the ship from Europe to Kerala will be divided among these trips. More the trips, lower the cost that will be heaped on the passengers," Murukan said.
Further, he said that cargo-like cars could also be taken in these ships. "A ship with a capacity to take 3000 passengers would have the space to hold 500 cars," Murukan said.
He, however, keeps the passenger costs close to his chest. "That will depend on the volume of passengers and the kind of ship that will be chartered. Anyway, it will be considerably less than peak-time flight costs," Murukan said. He said he would submit the cost details within seven days of receiving the passenger projection from the government.
He said the travel time of three-and-a-half days need not be a dampener. "When ordinary Malayalis travel to Delhi and Kolkata by train, won't it take even longer," he said. "These people opt for the train because it is cost-effective. So I feel there is potential for a passenger ship to the Gulf as most of the 'pravasis' work their heads off in low-paying jobs in the Gulf. They will find this a blessing," Murukan said.