Country's tourism industry mourns blow to reputation

Incidents of poorly crewed or overloaded ferries coming to grief occur somewhere in the world almost weekly; the difference with this event is that so many lives have been lost. Ferry travel is safer by an order of magnitude in Europe compared with the developing world. Lessons from the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge and the Estonia in the Baltic have helped to strengthen safety rules within the EU.

The Egyptian authorities have been quick to insist that their regulations on shipping meet international standards, but the Al-Salaam '98 would not have been allowed to carry passengers within EU waters. And safety rules are only effective if they are enforced; the evidence from maritime, terrestrial and aviation accidents around the world is that policing of safety standards ranges from patchy to poor.

One positive consequence of this tragedy will be that Egypt will improve its regulation of merchant ships. Another should be that British travellers in the developing world will be more inclined to question safety measures - and reduce their exposure to risk.

Even though the ferry route served by the ship is not on the travellers' circuit, Egypt's tourism industry will mourn another blow to the country's image. While the safety of vessels used for tourists on the Nile has not been questioned, this tragedy may deter some from booking cruises.

More widely, the sinking represents another in a series of disasters that has afflicted Egypt - most recently the suicide bombings in the resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh last year. Egypt is economically dependent on tourism, and the last thing that the struggling industry needs is an image of a nation beset by tragedy.

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