A travel firm in the central highlands province of Lam Dong has been suspended after three British nationals died during its tour at a local waterfall the day before, news website Zing reported on Saturday, citing a local tourism official.
Dam Me Company's activities will be halted until an investigation into the accident at the Datanla Falls, about 10 kilometers from the resort town of Dalat's center, is concluded, said Nguyen Quy Phuong, chief of travel department under Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.
Local police have been questioning tour guide Dang Van Sy, 26, and company director Pham Huu Hoai Nguyen, 31, since Friday, according to national radio broadcaster Voice of Vietnam.
Managers of the Datanla Falls have been accusing the travel company of failing to contact them to get the tourists professional tour guides and relevant services, including necessary equipment for adventure tours such as zip-lining and climbing.
Initial investigation suggested that the victims, 25-year-old man Christian Sloan and two women Izzy Squire, 19, and Beth Anderson, 25, might have slipped while descending the falls. Their bodies were recovered with safety jackets on, but no ropes or climbing gears were found.
They all died of brain injuries after hitting rocks, local media cited police's autopsy results as saying.
In a report to Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, Nguyen Thi Nguyen, director of Lam Dong's tourism department, said Dam Me Company, which provided the tourists with safety jackets and helmets, did not buy them travel insurance.
She also confirmed that the tour guide was licensed to lead tours for foreign tourists, after international media reported that Sy was not authorized.
The accident was "a costly lesson," Nguyen told a meeting on Saturday.
Local authorities will tighten control over local travel companies which operate outdoor and adventure tours, she said. Those businesses which are found failing to obey safety rules will be shut down, either temporarily or permanently, she stressed.
In the meantime, Giles Lever, British ambassador to Vietnam, flew to Dalat on Saturday for an inspection at the accident site. He also met with Lam Dong's authorities to learn more about the accident.
Tour guide's account
Rescuers move the tourists' bodies on February 26, 2016. Photo: Gia Binh
Sy, the tour guide, said in Tuoi Tre newspaper that they arrived at the falls around 11:30 a.m. on Friday, starting a tour which included trekking, swimming and climbing.
The accident happened when the foreigners decided to slide at one section of the falls, when they saw a group of foreign tourists doing it, he said. In one of adventure tours at the Datanla, tourists can slide along granites where the water is gentle, wearing safety jackets and helmets.
Sy claimed he warned the tourists, when they were approaching an area where the water was swift and dangerous, but they ignored him.
The male foreigner then stood up, walking towards the women who were behind him about one meter, but he slipped and was swept away, according to the tour guide.
The women were soon swept away toward the waterfall, too, Sy said, adding that he did not dare jump into the water, fearing he would be swept away as well.
Instead, he said, he and another three people whose identities were unclear rushed toward the fall's end where they found the man's body 10 minutes later, and then one of the women's after another 15 minutes.
The Datanla falls' managers said they were informed of the accident around noon.
The third body was recovered at 5 p.m. before being handed over to British Consulate-General in Ho Chi Minh City that night.
Speaking with the newspaper, Nguyen, the director of Dam Me Company, said: "We are lost now. We will do whatever authorities tell us to."
Who's to blame?
Local travel companies' responses to the accident, which happened even as Vietnam has been struggling to woo foreign tourists, have been mixed so far.
Vo Duc Trung, director of Ho Chi Minh City-based Vietnam Adventure Travel JSC, said since the accident site is dangerous, Dam Me Company should have assigned two tour guides to the tour.
Many travel companies, in fact, assign only two-three tour guides to a group of up to 15-20 tourists, Trung said, warning that such method is an accident waiting to happen.
Tran Bao Thu, a media representative of Fiditour, apparently too implied that the travel company should be held responsible for the accident. Foreign tourists, who give tours' safety a priority, always pay attention to the instructions of tour guides or other professionals for that matter, she said in an interview with news website Zing.
However, Tran Long, a representative of Viet Media Travel Company, said tour guides cannot follow every step of tourists to supervise their activities.
Travel companies are not responsible for any accident that happen when tourists take part in activities out of a designed tour or when they do not follow their instructions, Long was quoted as saying.