Travel agent for ill-fated party did not check route

Kyodo

The Tokyo-based travel agency that organized last weekend’s ill-fated trekking tour near the Great Wall outside Beijing relied on its Chinese partner to ensure the safety of the party and never sent staff to assess the route.

Tokyo-based Amuse-Travel Co. also arranged a 2009 mountain tour in Hokkaido in which eight tourists died in poor weather.

When asked Monday about the level of danger at the hiking site and what safety precautions had been taken, Junichi Itagaki, head of the firm’s general affairs division, did little more than reiterate that the Chinese partner had those details.

Amuse-Travel was apparently introduced to the Chinese company by Mong Pingming, 25, a Chinese guide who accompanied the tour and was among those rescued. The agency admitted it only made contact with the Chinese partner after the accident.

At the briefing, Amuse-Travel effectively acknowledged the firm left matters of safety solely to the local party. “(We) selected (the local partner) considering whether it had detailed information on safety. A guide from China (introduced Amuse-Travel to the company),” Itagaki said.

Under guidelines compiled by the Japan Association of Travel Agents and other related industry bodies in 2005, companies operating mountain tours are urged to thoroughly inspect the planned routes and gather safety information when they organize new packages.

Following the 2009 accident on Mount Tomuraushi in Hokkaido, the guidelines added a provision for companies to clearly state in their ads the level of physical strength and mountaineering skills required.

But apparently the sites of 10 to 20 percent of the overseas tours that Amuse-Travel offers have not been visibly inspected by company staff. The agency also rated the physical strength required for the Great Wall tour at 3 on a scale of zero to 5, meaning mountaineering or other physical skills were not needed. It also did not instruct tour attendants and guides to periodically report their situation to the Tokyo firm.

Experts believe the decision to contract out key matters to an outside party may have contributed to the tragedy.

“Beijing is not known as a place with heavy snowfall,” said Gota Isono, head director at the Japan Mountain Guide Association. He said people there generally do not know how to deal with a mountain blizzard.

“That is all the more reason the party should have tried to get out sooner,” Isono said. “The fact that fatalities occurred indicates the party was being led by someone who lacked the proper judgment.”

Another expert questioned whether the itinerary — 100 km in seven days — was appropriate even for participants with some mountaineering experience.

“Walking so much every day must have been tough for middle-aged and elderly participants,” the mountain guide said. The three who died were in their 60s and 70s.

The guide added that he typically leads domestic mountain tours that last three to four days at most, and that participants’ physical and mental strength usually decline near the end.

Jusetsu Setsuda, an ex-chief editor at Yama-kei Publishers Co. who specializes in outdoor activities and headed a special investigative panel on the 2009 Hokkaido disaster, said: “It is regrettable that the lesson from the accident was not learned. The firm was naive (about the danger).”