Fri, Jul 22, 2016 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Bus fire bodes ill for tourism

The fire on Tuesday on a tour bus that killed 24 Chinese tourists and two Taiwanese — the driver and a tour guide — marked the highest number of fatalities in six years in an incident involving a Chinese tour group in Taiwan.

While the investigation into the causes of the heart-wrenching incident is still under way, concerns have been voiced over the safety of overseas tourists in Taiwan and the operations of Chinese travel agencies that offer cheap group tours.

According to preliminary results of the investigation, two instances of human error have been pinpointed as possible causes of the incident.

The first is that the bus proprietor converted the vehicle’s electical system from 24 volts to 110 volts, which might have caused an overload. The second is that a lock was installed on an emergency exit, purportedly to prevent theft, which might have been the reason those onboard were unable to escape and why outside help could not reach them.

Although Minister of Transportation and Communications Hochen Tan (賀陳旦) pledged to conduct a full-scale inspection of the nation’s 17,000 tour buses to examine their equipment and safety, the public remains gravely concerned about the quality of sightseeing buses.

Such worries are evidenced by netizens’ dredging up of an article penned in 2011 by Wu Pei-li (吳培俐), a family member of one of the 23 people killed in a 1992 fire on a bus carrying kindergarten students.

Wu said in the article that at the time, the Chinese government realized the danger of sealed windows following two bus fires, but its Taiwanese counterpart still allowed owners of large motor vehicles to choose between push-out and sealed windows that came with a window breaker.

Wu on Wednesday told the Chinese-language Apple Daily that while the Ministry of Transportation and Communications revised its regulations and mandated that large motor vehicles manufactured from this year onward be equipped with at least three emergency exit windows, a full-scale retirement of old buses might not be possible for two or three decades.

“In other words, passengers still have to travel by what Chinese netizens sarcastically dub “mobile coffins” for another 20 to 30 years,” Wu said.

However, although these otherwise avoidable mistakes no doubt contributed to Tuesday’s death toll, an underlying cause could be the so-called continuous line service, also known as the “one dragon” service. As part of the service, Chinese travel agencies use cheap travel packages, while everything from transportation, shopping and meals to accommodation is provided by Chinese-funded companies.

To maximize their profits, these travel agencies strive to save money on transportation, food and the hiring of tour guides, as commissions paid by souvenir stores are their primary revenue source.

According to statistics compiled by the Tourism Bureau, only 12.78 percent of Chinese tour groups’ expenditure in Taiwan last year went on transportation, compared with 27.59 percent spent by Japanese tour groups.

While money does not always guarantee quality, these figures send a worrisome message that Chinese travel agencies care little about the quality of the tour buses they rent, even though that is closely related to the safety of travelers.

The responsibility to ensure the safety of Chinese tourists falls on the governments of both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

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