Four Japanese tourists, a Chinese tour conductor and a Chinese guide were caught in a blizzard while trekking on a mountain overlooking the Great Wall outside Beijing on Nov. 3. Apparently Amuse-Travel Co., which organized the trekking tour, relied on its Chinese partner to ensure the safety of the party and never sent staff to assess the route. This violation of travel-industry guidelines ultimately cost the lives of three of the Japanese tourists — two women in their 60s and a man in his 70s.
The same firm organized a mountaineering tour to climb Hokkaido’s 2,141-meter Mount Tomuraushi in July 2009, during which eight people died from hypothermia. Due to this incident, the Japan Tourism Agency ordered the company to suspend its operations for 51 days in December 2010.
It is deplorable that a fatal accident occurred again on a mountain tour organized by the same firm. It appears that the firm did not take the disaster on Mount Tomuraushi seriously and failed to learn from it. The Japan Tourism Agency must carry out a thorough investigation of the latest disaster. It also should examine whether its instructions to travel agencies organizing mountain tours have been sufficient.
The participants in the China tour — the first of its kind to be organized by Amuse-Travel — were to trek a distance of more than 100 km along the Great Wall over a seven-day period. On Nov. 3, they were supposed to trek 14 km in five hours but became trapped in deep snow. Their Chinese guide left them to get help.
The Chinese conductor who led the tour had introduced a Beijing firm to Amuse-Travel, which has admitted that it did not have direct contact with the Beijing agency until after the accident. It appears that Amuse-Travel did not have a firm grasp of the tour’s details in the planning stage. At a briefing this week, it effectively acknowledged that it left safety matters in the hands of the Chinese travel agency.
Under guidelines issued in 2005 by the Japan Association of Travel Agents and other industry organizations, companies operating mountain tours are urged to thoroughly inspect the planned routes and gather safety information when they organize new packages. Amuse-Travel has admitted that its employees did not carry out a preliminary examination of the trekking course and instead relied on the Chinese travel agency in Beijing to plan the course. If Amuse-Travel had followed the industry’s guidelines, this disaster likely would not have taken place.
Amuse-Travel told the tour participants to bring fleece jackets or sweaters but did not instruct them to bring clothes suitable for snowy conditions. It also failed to instruct the Chinese tour conductor and the guide to regularly maintain contact with it.
A Japanese woman who survived the disaster said the tour conductor and the guide told the tour participants that the weather would deteriorate and that it might start snowing around the time that they started descending the mountain.
The decision by the tour leaders to continue the trek that day knowing that weather conditions could turn treacherous shows a lack of proper judgement.
Overseas mountain trekking has become popular with Japanese, especially middle-aged and elderly people. Travel agencies should strictly follow the guidelines established by the industry and plan their packages with utmost care, especially with regard to safety.