Courtesy Antara Cruises
Longest river cruise 'Ganga Vilas'.

Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. In January, we’re shining the spotlight on the new experiences 2023 has to offer.

CNN  — 

A luxury ship will make history when it embarks from the Indian spiritual city of Varanasi on Friday on a voyage that the country’s leader says will help usher in a new age of tourism on the subcontinent.

The MV Ganga Vilas is set to travel 3,200 kilometers (1,988 miles) of waterway in India and Bangladesh, making it the world’s longest river cruise, according to organizers.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has touted the cruise as one of the centerpieces of his government’s major program of infrastructure initiatives, will make a digital appearance to send the ship off in style.

From there, the ship will travel along the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and other waterways through five states in western India, then into neighboring Bangladesh, visiting national parks, UNESCO World Heritage sites and big cities along the way.

In a speech made by Modi on December 30, the prime minister referenced the cruise as part of a burgeoning trend that could bring more visitors to his country.

“This will be an unprecedented cruise of its kind in the whole world,” Modi said. “It will also be a reflection of the growing cruise tourism (industry) in India.”

The MV Ganga Vilas will carry 36 passengers in 18 suites, according to Antara, the company that owns and operates the cruise ship, plus about 48 crew members.

Though it’s called the Ganges in English, the river’s name is Ganga in India, hence the ship’s moniker.

Originally, the cruise was planned for 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. It was marketed in Europe and the initial round of passengers are from Switzerland, France and other countries, according to organizers.

Kashif Siddiqui, director of sales and marketing at Antara, tells CNN that the plan is to run the cruise itinerary twice a year between October and March, when the weather is better and the river water level is high.

He says tickets for two scheduled 2024 sailings have already sold out.

Tickets cost between 4.2 million to 4.5 million rupees apiece, which works out to $51,114-$54,765 per guest.

The MV Ganga Vilas’ 51 days on the water include stops in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, the Sundarbans mangrove forest (which is shared by the two countries) and India’s Kaziranga National Park, which is home to one-horned rhinoceroses.

The ship’s interiors were inspired by the work of 20th-century German painter Josef Albers.

Courtesy Antara Cruises
A view inside a suite on the MV Ganga Vilas.

River cruising has long been a stalwart in Europe, with multiple companies regularly plying the Danube, Rhine and Seine’s waters, as well as in North America.

But it is a fairly new offering in India, which is on track to pass China for the title of world’s most populous country this year.

River cruising provides a way to access more rural destinations that don’t have a major airport or highway access and can bring much-needed tourism revenue to those communities as well.

But there are issues holding the industry back. India’s rivers – most notably the Ganges – continue to struggle with severe pollution. This impacts the daily lives of millions of Indians, particularly low-income earners who live in heavily populated urban centers such as Varanasi.

In 2014, the government launched the ongoing National Mission for Clean Ganga initiative – also referred to as the Namami Gange project – to address the major contributors to the pollution in the country’s longest river.

03:50 - Source: CNN
Cleaning up one of the world's most polluted waterways

Increased opportunities for cruise tourism

According to the Economic Times, India has eight river cruise ships capable of traveling between Varanasi and Kolkata.

Plans are underway to increase the opportunities for river cruise tourism in India, with 10 passenger ship terminals being built along National Waterway-2, an 891-kilometer section of the Brahmaputra River.

MV Ganga Vilas operator Antara offers several upscale cruise itineraries that are much shorter in duration.

One route from Kolkata to Murshidabad in West Bengal runs for eight days and costs 292,875 rupees ($3,500), while a voyage from Kolkata to Varanasi lasts 12 days and costs 437,250 rupees ($5,300).

Siddiqui tells CNN the company’s future plans go beyond rivers. Their next project is a lake cruising experience in Kashmir, the troubled region divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both countries.

Though 51 days is a record for river cruising, that achievement pales next to some of the barge-sized itineraries available on ocean cruises.

The world’s longest cruise, a 245-day trip that departed from London in 2019, visited six continents.

Top: Exterior of the MV Ganga Vilas cruise ship. Photo courtesy Antara Cruises.