SCMP Thursday, September 27, 2001

Deadly road to paradise


When Donald Tsang Yam-kuen chose a turquoise cover for the Budget in 1999, the then financial secretary said the colour reminded him of the beautiful lakes in Jiuzhaigou, a resort in the north-west of Sichuan province, and represented brilliance, initiative and boldness. "It is a lovely area with waterfalls and inland lakes where the water is crystal clear. It's the first time I realised what turquoise meant," he said.
But people now have a very different image of the popular tourist destination. On Sunday, three Hong Kong tourists were killed and nine are now missing, feared dead, after their bus careered off the main road to Jiuzhaigou after a collision with a car and plunged 12 metres into the powerful Minjiang River.
Four people on the trip organised by Kwan Kin Travel Services survived with one suffering serious bone fractures. This captivating United Nations World Heritage-listed section of the mainland is described in promotional material as a "wonderland". But the tragedy has exposed the dangerous side: muddy roads, landslides during heavy rains, reckless drivers and poor rescue facilities. It also raises serious concerns about the safety of touring on the mainland.
Officials in the area have repeatedly promised to provide safer conditions for tourists following a series of fatal accidents over the years. But danger remains. The National Tourism Administration has ordered a thorough investigation into the accident. The central Government has also urged local authorities to be especially alert to the safety of tourists ahead of next week's National Day holiday.
Accidents like the one last Sunday threaten the mainland's growing tourism industry - expected to be boosted by the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing - which is regarded as a key source of revenue. Figures for last year place China as the world's fifth-most-popular draw for tourists, producing more than US$16 billion (about HK$125 billion) in revenue, according to mainland tourist authorities.
Jiuzhaigou, with its national park, might have earned a reputation for having some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. But it is also regarded as a potentially dangerous area for tourists. Indeed, Taiwan's Tourism Bureau has in the past included it on a list of "risky" tourist destinations, because of poor transportation facilities and an unsatisfactory rescue system.
Legislator Choy So-yuk travelled along the Chengdu-Jiuzhaigou road, scene of Sunday's crash, just three days before the tragedy. She said she narrowly escaped a mudslide on her way back to Chengdu. Ms Choy, her mother and two friends departed from Maowen, near the site of the crash, at 7am on September 20 and expected to reach Chengdu by 11:30am. But heavy rains caused several mudslides on the road and traffic was jammed for almost 10 hours. "The conditions were terrible. On the way, I saw three coaches turned on their side and all the windows were broken. The road is very narrow, our van almost touched the coaches on the opposite lane."
Ms Choy said the road was blocked after officials stopped the traffic to clear the mud. "The traffic was completely paralysed and a police officer told me the line of vehicles extended for about 10 kilometres. We waited and waited in the van and finally reached Chengdu at midnight, 12 hours later than we had expected."
She described the cliff-side road where the accident occurred as being too dangerous for tourists during heavy rain. "The local government should block the road during bad weather, so tourists cannot go there. They [local government] should have an alternative plan."
The crash on Sunday occurred at about 2pm, when the 28-seater coach carrying 18 people, including a mainland driver and tour guide, was involved in a head-on collision with a car. The coach plunged down a slope and into the river. Local police have detained the car driver and are expected to charge him with speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road.
Chan Wan-sheung, a tourist who survived, said the coach somersaulted several times before hitting the water. "Everyone was screaming. I just thought to myself I had to keep on swimming otherwise I would drown," she said. She was with her husband, Tse Chi-keung, who also survived.
The accident has already prompted some Hong Kong travellers to cancel or postpone their trips to Sichuan. The road connecting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, to Jiuzhaigou is in poor condition, making the journey a potential death trap during bad weather. But coaches still speed along the narrow two-lane road, even in conditions made treacherous by heavy rain. There is no lighting at night and no places for drivers to rest during the 12-hour trips. And all this in an area where motorists often have scant regard for safety.
Just four months ago, Sichuan Vice-Governor Li Dachang admitted that the slow development of tourism in the province was due to the slow pace of infrastructure. Mr Li said many roads and bridges linking cities and tourist sights were yet to be built. Sichuan's provincial government targets a growth of 18 per cent in tourism turnover annually. The government plans to spend 800 million yuan (about HK$740 million) to build an airport - Mianyang Nanjiao - near the scenic spots of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong. More roads will be built to link cities with areas where ethnic minority cultures, popular with tourists, thrive.
The Hong Kong Travel Industry Council has urged Sichuan officials to improve the safety of tourist attractions. Council chairman Ronnie Yuen Ka-chai said the council chief executive Joseph Tung Yiu-chung flew to Sichuan on Monday night and held an urgent meeting with local officials. "We have requested all local travel agents to hire two drivers for each coach for long-haul trips and if only one driver is available, he should be given enough rest on the way.
"We will also remind travel agents there that they should be alert to the weather conditions. If conditions are bad, the trip should be cancelled," Mr Yuen said.
The council has asked all Hong Kong travel agents to cancel sightseeing in the Huanglong (yellow dragon) scenic spot, near Jiuzhaigou. Most Hong Kong tours in Sichuan cover both places but Mr Yuen said the route to Huanglong was unsafe. "The place is up a mountain and most of the time the coach has to make a 20-minute trip in heavy fog, so we think it is not very safe for tourists."
Mr Yuen said the council was holding talks with local authorities about the possibility of using another route to Jiuzhaigou, which is about 80km longer than the one most tourist coaches currently use. "Safety should always come first for tours," he said.
Chan Lup-chi, chairman of the 200-member Hong Kong Association of China Travel Organisers, admitted safety conditions on the Chengdu-Jiuzhaigou road were unsatisfactory. "But the local authorities have been improving the situation. The development is limited by the geographic features of the areas, there are so many mountains and the site is remote. We cannot cancel all tours until everything is fixed. The [mainland] tourism authority has implemented strict management on agents, and Hong Kong tour agents will only choose those accredited by the authority."
Mr Chan said it would be better if two drivers accompanied each coach. "But an accident is an accident, even on a highway in developed countries. Accidents still happen." He said the tragedy would only have a temporary impact on the mainland tourism industry.
But commitments to making improvements will not be enough to assure worried travellers. Poor rescue and medical facilities mean victims in serious traffic accidents are often unable to get help quickly.
The families of some victims still missing in the latest tragedy blamed the poor response of local rescue teams. There was no crane strong enough to lift the coach, which has now sunk to the bed of the river. The rescuers instead simply fixed the position of the coach with two ropes which fasten the vehicle to a small fence on the highway.
The elderly mother of one of the missing, Leung Ming-suen, 38, said in Sichuan on Tuesday: "It is not good enough to wait until now to launch a massive rescue. They should have put more effort into it earlier. Even now they have not done enough in the search."
Last week's tragedy not only highlighted poor safety standards on mainland tours. There have also been concerns about security. An investigation into the death of 24 Taiwanese tourists following an explosion on a cruise boat on Lake Qiandao, eastern Zhejiang province, in March 1994 found that the blast had been started deliberately after the tourists were robbed and murdered. At the time, the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan banned all tour groups from travelling to China and demanded a clear account from Beijing as to how the deaths occurred.
The bureau also issued a preliminary risk evaluation in 1994 of 11 major tourist areas in mainland China, with Jiuzhaigou, Lake Qiandao, Huangshan and Tibet receiving the worst ratings. In October that year, Chinese officials called for immediate action to protect tourists after 160 plunged into Tianhu Lake in Guangdong when metal chains holding a 100-metre bridge over the lake snapped. Thirty-eight people lost their lives.
A nationwide survey conducted by the China National Tourism Association in 1994 revealed such potential dangers as antiquated equipment, lack of security staff and poor management at some scenic spots and hotels and said this might account for a low tourist turnout in previous years.
Taiwan again banned its travel agents from organising trips to "high-risk" parts of China in 1995, following the death of eight Taiwanese tourists in a boating accident in the Three Gorges area.
The problem of motorists showing scant regard for safety has been highlighted by Sunday's tragedy. Mainland officials have blamed the accident on this problem and many people believe road-safety education should be made a priority.
According to statistics from Xinhua, an average of 1,700 traffic accidents took place each day in China last year, claiming 257 lives, injuring 1,150 people, and causing direct economic losses of over 7.3 million yuan a day. The five main causes of traffic accidents have been attributed to speeding, negligence, failure to adjust to unexpected traffic situations, failure to give pedestrians the right-of-way and driving in the wrong lane.
In Sichuan alone, 478 people were killed in road accidents last month. Mr Yuen, chairman of the Travel Industry Council, said many accidents could have been avoided if drivers had a better sense of safety.
"Traffic accidents can happen anywhere. What is important is safety awareness among drivers."
Ella Lee ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages.