Tourists on cheap Vietnam tour paid with lives
By Ian Timberlake, Agence France-Presse 20 February 2011
Tourists who boarded the "Dream Voyage" tour boat for Vietnam's Halong Bay last Wednesday thought they had got a cheap deal. It ended up costing them their lives. Travel agents in Hanoi's Old Quarter tourist hub say you get what you pay for, with the cheapest two-day tours that sell for about $35 relying on vessels with lower standards. "You know why so many young people died? Because it was a cheap tour," said one travel agent, asking not to be named. Ten visitors from the United States, Sweden, Russia, Britain, Japan, France and Switzerland died when their boat sank while they slept before dawn on Thursday. An Australian of Vietnamese origin and a tour guide from Vietnam were also among the victims, the official Vietnam News Agency said.
Initial information from the crew suggested the boat sank because of a break in the lower hull, according to police. It took on water so fast that sleeping passengers had almost no time to escape the torrent that filled their cabins. Nine tourists and six crew survived. One survivor, George Fosmire, told AFP that he and his girlfriend – who died in the tragedy – paid $42 each for their overnight tour. "If people want the standard tour I will tell them: The boat is older and sometimes the food is not enough," said the travel agent who spoke to AFP. Another agent, from Friendly Hotel Travel, agreed: "If you want the cheap tour I can arrange for you but... the boat's not good, the food's not good and the guide is not friendly." He pulled out a book like a thick photo album with pictures of a "new" vessel that offers a package at $83 for two days. "This boat, no accident. Never," said the agent. "Some companies, they are still using the old boats, so I'm just scared they don't check" the equipment, he added, declining to be named.
Vietnamese media reported that the sunken boat had been in service since 2008 but the owners were linked to another accident on the bay, in which three foreigners and a Vietnamese guide died in 2009. A source familiar with marine practices in Halong Baytold AFP the latest accident did not come as a surprise. The design of the vessels – most of which are wooden and resemble Chinese-style junks – makes them prone to overturning in storms; they often lack sophisticated electronic equipment and crews may not have adequate training, said the source, who declined to be named.
Kurt Walter, general manager of luxury tour boat the Emeraude, said the latest accident proves that all the attention his company pays to safety is necessary. "We try to minimize the risk," says Walter, whose seven-year-old steel-hull vessel looks like a paddle-wheel ship but is actually propelled by two Caterpillar engines. The boat's current published rates start at $209 a person. Walter outlined a long list of safety measures taken by his vessel, one of about 20 luxury craft among the more than 400 tour boats on the bay. "We have done this all the time," he said. "We have monthly emergency and fire drills. We have probably the most state-of-the-art equipment to navigate through Halong Bay in zero visibility." He declined to discuss figures but said his company spends "enormous amounts" of money pulling the boat from the water for a month-long annual dry-dock inspection. Emeraude also uses a French captain with nearly 40 years' experience "to make sure we adhere to international standards."
The Emeraude prices are out of reach for most tourists walking the crowded streets of the Old Quarter, where the many small travel agencies post illuminated signs advertising trips to Halong Bay. Some young travelers said the accident had made them wary of staying overnight on the waters, whose limestone cliffs are one of the country's most popular attractions. "We're going to Halong Bay tomorrow but we're not staying on the sleeping boats," said Axel von Bergen, 22, of Sweden. "We're scared of the night boats." Carter Keith, 25, a dreadlocked American, said he and his friend would go to the bay but were unlikely to spend the night. "It just makes you think twice," he said. Authorities have vowed to crack down on tour boat safety after the accident. "There are international standards. I think if everybody strives to meet those, that would be a good start," said Walter.
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