A regional tourism expert has warned it would be “tragic” if the ferry disaster which may have claimed 60 lives in Tonga deters tourists from visiting the island nation.
The country’s inter-island ferry, the Princess Ashika, sunk 86km from the capital Nuku’alofa just before midnight on Wednesday with 117 people on board.
Rescue boats have picked up 53 survivors and the bodies of two people, including Briton Daniel Macmillan, who had been living in New Zealand.
Hopes are fading for the remaining 62 passengers, most of whom were are women and children who were sleeping on lower decks indoors when the boat became unbalanced and rolled quickly.
The country’s prime minister Fred Sevele has called it a “huge tragedy” for Tonga: “It’s a very sad day … it’s big for a small place.”
New Zealand Tourism Research Institute director Simon Milne, who is in Tonga to meet with tourism heads, said the fragile industry was likely to be hit hard by the disaster.
“Like so many places in the Pacific, Tonga had been feeling the brunt of the global economic recession,” Milne said from the island group of Ha’apai, where the rescue operation is centred.
“People had been feeling like they could overcome it but this is another blow, a tragic setback they really didn’t need.”
Inter-island ferries are not commonly used by tourists, most of whom opt to fly between Tonga’s three island groups, Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Va’vau.
The Princess Ashika was the only boat servicing the islands and had been purchased from Fiji two months ago after the aged Olovaha, in use since the 1980s, developed engine troubles.
The vessel was to be a stopgap until a new Japanese-built ferry was delivered in 2011.
Pesi Fonua, editor of Matangi Tonga newspaper, said many locals had a “bad feeling” about the boat as it had broken down several times during its initial attempts to relocate to Tonga.
Passenger reports suggest in this case the timber cargo on board had shaken loose in rough seas, shifting the balance of the boat and quickly up-ending it.
But Sevele said the official cause was not yet known and stressed the vessel had passed safety inspections and was found to be suitable for insurance.
“We were quite satisfied according to the reports we got before we actually paid for the ship,” he said.
Meanwhile, three vessels resumed the search on Friday for those still missing, but search and rescue mission coordinator John Dickson said hopes of finding people alive were fading.
“Clearly survival rates after this length of time are of concern, but we remain hopeful of finding more survivors,” he said.