The challenges facing passenger ships in China’s waterways are economic, brought about by cutthroat competition in the industry.
BEIJING — For much of recorded history, traveling up the Yangtze River meant braving turbulent currents and shoals. In recent years a more prosaic risk has been growing: poorly maintained ships and inexperienced crews.
Nature can still play a role. Initial reports indicate that the capsizing of a cruise ship Monday may have been partly caused by hurricane-force winds that hit the ship in the early hours. But most of the challenges facing passenger ships in China’s waterways are economic, brought about by cutthroat competition in the industry.
High-end cruises have become popular as China has seen the rise of a wealthy class of tourists.
Large companies such as Carnival Group have moved personnel to China, now second only to the United States in the number of cruise passengers.
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In 2014, the number of tourists on cruises leapt 43 percent from the year before to 862,000, according to an industry report. Industry estimates say that by 2020, the Chinese cruise-ship industry might grow to 4.5 million passengers and could have an economic effect of $8 billion.
River travel up China’s waterways is a different story. Industry data and reports suggest that, at best, the number of tourists traveling the Yangtze has stagnated, and many of them are budget-conscious retirees.
According to a report in the Yangtze Daily, 408,000 tourists traveled on boats in 2002, when the Three Gorges Dam came on line. Since then, tourism has grown slowly: 450,000 took cruises to the Three Gorges in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
A separate report from the Hubei province tourism board showed that the number of tourists going to the Three Gorges, the primary destination for Yangtze cruises, dropped 3 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period the year before.
Some of the danger of traveling the Yangtze has been tamed by technological prowess. The Three Gorges Dam has made the river much less choppy, especially through the gorges where the Oriental Star, the boat carrying 458 passengers and crew Monday, was heading. According to a senior marine-safety official from Chongqing cited in the Xinhua news agency last year, that city once averaged 57 accidents a year but now has just 13 on average.
But while the dam has calmed the river by flooding the gorges, it had made them less spectacular, reducing the appeal for high-end travelers. It also flooded major cultural relics. That caused international tourism to plummet, and luxury ships that used to charge 3,700 yuan ($600) for standard rooms sometimes now charge just 1,000 yuan ($160).
At the same time, inspectors have noticed an increasing number of problems among the ships. In 2013, the Nanjing Maritime Bureau found that six of 10 Yangtze cruise ferries had safety problems. In one case, the crew did not know how to put on life jackets and failed to give passengers safety precautions after they boarded. Also that year, a passenger ferry with 415 tourists caught fire, although it was towed to safety and no one was injured.
A survey of shipping companies on the Yangtze showed that 63 percent said they had difficulty hiring experienced, qualified sailors. More than half said they had to go to remote, impoverished regions to find crew members. The primary reason was low pay, with a captain earning just 7000 yuan (about $1,300) a month.
The accident Monday is reviving calls for better safety in domestic shipping in East Asia.
The loss of the Oriental Star comes less than six weeks after government officials from mostly East Asian nations held a conference in Manila to discuss the need for improved safety in local shipping.
Prompted by the loss of the Sewol, a South Korean ferry that capsized April 16 last year, killing 304 people, the conference was convened by the International Maritime Organization to strengthen regulations on passenger ships serving domestic routes.
Domestic cruises and domestic ferry traffic are not subject to a wide range of international safety rules. “There is an urgent need to enhance the safety of ships carrying passengers on noninternational voyages in certain parts of the world,” said a joint statement by the conference attendees.
Arthur Bowring, the managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, said Tuesday that the capsizing of the Oriental Star had echoes of last year’s accident in South Korea. “It’s just so sad,” he said. “It’s almost exactly like the Sewol.”
According to statistics compiled by the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association in New York, 16,881 people died or were missing in domestic passenger-shipping accidents around the world from late 2000 through September of last year.
China had a total of 86 dead and missing from nine accidents in this period, the association’s data show. That does not include Monday’s accident. Three countries had more fatal domestic-shipping accidents during the same time period: Bangladesh, with 37; Indonesia, with 25; and the Philippines, with 14.
But 20 countries have had more deaths than China despite fewer accidents. Senegal had only one incident in this period, but it killed 1,863 people, said Johan Roos, the director of regulatory affairs at Interferry, a trade association of the global ferry industry that is based in Victoria, Canada.
At the Manila conference in April, there was a clear consensus after the Sewol tragedy that domestic-shipping-safety standards would have to improve in Asia, said Dracos Vassalos, a professor of maritime safety at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Most of the domestic ships don’t even have basic regulations,” Vassalos said. “If we can do that, many lives will be saved.”