BEIRUT/JBEIL, Lebanon: By Tuesday afternoon, Abdul-Hafiz Kayssi was still completely unaware of an accident off the southern port of Sarafand which hospitalized 12 Sunday night, with two people still in critical condition. When the director general of land and maritime transport at the Public Works and Transport Ministry, under whose jurisdiction the licensing and monitoring of tour boats falls, was asked about the accident, he said he did not know of it. Instead, he said his department “did not hear of any accidents this year.”
Throughout the summer months, short boat tours off Lebanon’s coast are popular among Lebanese and foreigners alike. But incidents like Sunday’s raise questions about the safety of such excursions. And while Kayssi’s ministry has standards, their implementation is by no means transparent.
It remains unclear what caused the accident in Sarafand. The vessel’s owner, Hussein Chalhoub, claims his boat capsized when passengers refused to follow his instructions, crowding together and unbalancing the vessel. Passengers, however, say Chalhoub lost control of the boat in choppy waters.
There were 24 people – 19 adults and five children – aboard the 8-meter-long craft at the time of the accident.
Kayssi’s office is responsible for maritime safety and issuing licenses to commercially operated craft.
To obtain a license, the vessel must pass an inspection and be awarded a sea-worthiness certificate. Inspectors also assess how many passengers a boat may safely carry, Kayssi said.
He could not provide guidelines for vessel size in terms of the number of passengers boats are authorized to carry, saying such affairs were technical matters for inspectors.
However, conversations with boat-tour operators at Jbeil port Tuesday suggested Chalhoub’s craft may have been overcrowded, an occurrence not entirely uncommon.
Bassili Bassili told The Daily Star the number of passengers he could take out on his 12.25-meter boat was “20, 25 maximum.”
However, when a reporter made the same enquiry by phone under the guise of being a customer, Bassili said if the sea was calm the boat could handle 40 passengers. He did specify that with such a large number aboard tourists would have to sit in their places. There could be “no dancing,” he said.
Another operator at Jbeil said by phone that his 11-meter boat could take 25-30 passengers.
Certified vessels must also adhere to minimum safety standards.
According to Kayssi, there must be a life jacket aboard for each passenger; the vessel must have a lifeboat; both the boat and its passengers must be insured; and there must be communication equipment aboard. Kayssi said that for the last condition a cellphone sufficed if the boat did not travel too far offshore.
Chalhoub had life jackets aboard, his Sunday passengers said; although they were not wearing them at the time of the accident. There was no lifeboat, however, and they had to wait for another boat to rescue them from the water.
Jbeil operator Bassili showed The Daily Star his life vests, saying he had “around 30” on the craft. He did not point out a lifeboat, although he did have a life buoy.
Jbeil’s harbor master declined to speak to The Daily Star about tour-boat safety, saying he was unauthorized to do so.
At the southern Mounis port where Chalhoub’s boat is docked, harbor master Hasan Badran blamed Sunday’s accident on the passengers.
Asked if the boat was overcrowded, he simply said boats are “used to taking this number of passengers.”
Badran also pointed out that Chalhoub’s boat was not insured, saying the cost of insurance was too expensive for many operators – whom he described as “fishermen.” However, he called for making the purchase of boat insurance mandatory in the same way it was for cars.
At Sarafand port 2 km away, an expert source who asked not to be identified was adamant safety standards were being followed, saying all boats leaving the harbor had to pass through an Army checkpoint.
Because of this, “no unlicensed boat can take passengers,” the source said. He also insisted boats were not overcrowded, but did not elaborate on whether the Army closely monitored this safety aspect.
Kayssi also said that boats were subject to inspections “once per year.”
Yet, asked if his craft was regularly inspected, Chalhoub said: “We have no state to do this, and you know that corruption is everywhere.”
Pressed whether this meant that his boat had not been inspected, Chalhoub said: “I think you understand what I’m saying.”
Although Kayssi acknowledged “there is a problem” with unlicensed vessels operating as tour boats, both Chalhoub and Badran told The Daily Star Tuesday that the boat, “The Madline,” was licensed by the ministry.
Contacted by The Daily Star, caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said that tour boats, like Middle East Airlines and airport taxis, did fall under his jurisdiction.
“We have a lot of concern [about safety],” he said. “They are not regulated and they should be regulated.”
Asked how tourists could ensure the safety of the craft they were boarding, Kayssi recommended they consult the harbor master or security officers at the port. – Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme