River cruise lines catering to international passengers are reassuring travelers that their boats on China's Yangtze River are safe, in response to the tragedy with a capsized ship there.
Despite the rain and heavy winds that likely caused the Eastern Star sinking, the 7 riverboats managed by Victoria Cruises had not experienced out-of-the-ordinary navigation issues on June 1, the line announced in a statement. Victoria Sophia, which had been downstream from Eastern Star in nearby Wuhan at the time of the accident, was sailing on schedule and reported manageable conditions.
Only 14 of the 456 passengers (most of them elderly Chinese) onboard Eastern Star, have been rescued. Rescue efforts continue, but the prospect of finding other survivors has diminished.
The Eastern Star ship is owned by the state-run Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., one of the oldest pleasure cruise companies in China. Built in 1994, the 2,200 GT, 250-foot ship had capacity for 534 travelers, while in contrast, a modern riverboat such as Viking Emerald (2011), is 7,150 GT and only carries 256 guests.
Victoria Cruises said in its release, that although it was still unclear what had caused Eastern Star to capsize, the tragedy underscored the "need for higher safety and inspection standards". The line added it maintained strict standards on its river cruise ships, which featured double-bottom hulls with high tonnage and had been ranked “A” class by Yangtze River Administration of Navigational Affairs.
Victoria Cruises had faced increased competition in recent years from local Chinese companies who were not bound by the same Western standards.
In 2013 the Eastern Star boat had been cited for safety infractions, according to Wall Street Journal. The article noted that while other river cruise ships in the area had slowed down and stopped because of stormy conditions, Eastern Star had continued sailing.
The accident comes at a time when cruising on the Yangtze River is growing in popularity, due to the opening of other waterways in Asia, such as the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as Burma's Irrawaddy.
The other river lines besides Victoria Cruises, that cater to international cruisers in China, are Viking River Cruises and Century Cruises, providing charters for companies such as AvalonWaterways, Uniworld and Wendy Wu Tours.