Authorities in Nanjing, where the Eastern Star began its unfortunate voyage, held the ship and five other Yangtze cruise vessels after it found them violating standards during a safety inspection campaign in 2013, according to a report on the city’s Maritime Safety website.
The report provided only sketchy details. Among the dozens of violations it found among the vessels were practices such as failing to use the ship’s automated identification systems. It didn’t break down the violations by individual vessel or say who owned the other vessels.
Authorities are bound to scrutinize the Eastern Star’s safety record and that of its owner, Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., as they investigate why the ship capsized late Monday, leaving more 420 people unaccounted for. Police have detained the ship’s captain and chief engineer, who were among the few survivors.
Chongqing Eastern Shipping is one of China’s oldest pleasure cruise companies, struggling to compete with newcomers offering much fancier accommodations.
For decades, the sunken Eastern Star, the Eastern Pearl and other “three-star” cruise ships have made the 1,100 mile (1,800-kilometre) journey from Chongqing, perched high above the Yangtze, past the craggy, scenic Three Gorges and their gargantuan dam, to Nanjing, way down in the swampy lowlands.
According to state media, Chongqing Eastern Shipping was founded in 1967 during the tumult of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution as a state company handling river cargo transport from the upper reaches of the Yangtze to the sea. Since the early 1990s it also has run cruise ships, mostly relatively basic vessels with tiny cabins and toilets that double as shower stalls.
Operators of the flat-bottomed, multi-decked ships charge their mostly older, Chinese passengers modest fares of 1,000 yuan ($160) and up for three to five day tours, most meals included. The boats ply a river that is often difficult to navigate and the industry as a whole struggles to find qualified staff, at least partly because of low salaries.
Rescuers escalated efforts to retrieve missing people Wednesday from the Eastern Star, which sits belly up in the middle stretch of the river.
As scores of divers searched, a large crane stood ready for a possible effort to raise the craft. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said 19 bodies had been recovered and 14 people were rescued.
The 2,200 gross-ton vessel, built in 1994, is 250 feet (76.5 metres) long and carries a maximum of 534 passengers.
The newer cruise lines have larger ships with mostly smaller passenger loads: the 10,680-ton Victoria Jenna, inaugurated in 2009, is 440 feet (134 metres) long and carries up to 378 passengers.
The fancier vessels generally offer amenities such as private balconies, fully equipped bathrooms, fitness facilities, Internet access and cable television.
The flow of tourists through the Three Gorges area peaked with a rush to see sites due to be inundated before the giant dam’s completion in 2012.
Enough historic and cultural sites remain to ensure a steady stream of tourists eager to escape busy cities for a leisurely river cruise on the Yangtze’s turbid brown waters. But the numbers of passengers have been decreasing and the construction of expressways and high-speed railways is reducing demand, putting further pressure on the passenger travel industry.
Cruise operators are also having trouble finding qualified staff, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency, which said that a ship technician’s salary tends to be lower than that of an auto mechanic.
According to state-run newspaper China Business Journal, Chongqing Eastern Shipping reported net profit of only 1.3 million yuan (about $210,000) in 2014. It had liabilities of 184.7 million yuan ($29.8 million) and 89.75 million yuan ($14.5 million) in assets.
It described the company’s situation as “rather dismal.”
The Yangtze is a vital link between China’s coasts and its resource-rich inland regions, busy with barges and other shipping as well as passenger cruises.
Prone to flooding and treacherous in stretches, it has always been a challenge for ship operators navigating through its whirlpools and shoals, and often shallow river bed during the dry winter months.
The Yangtze River Administration announced plans this spring to re-inspect all the ships operating through its waterways, to ensure they were water-worthy and stable.
That came after it reported 18 accidents between October and December, including eight collisions, three strandings, five boats sunk and two other accidents, that killed as many as 10 people.