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How safe is ferry travel? It depends on where you are.
With the recent ferry accident in the Philippines still in the news, ferry safety comes to mind. According to this research study, Ferry Transport: The Realm of Responsibility, ferries are generally safe in Europe, the U.S. and other developed countries. In countries like Bangladesh, Somalia and Indonesia, it's another story.
In all, there were 4,000 ferry accidents world-wide from January 2000 to March 2004. The fatalities are counted by the bodies recovered, therefore, the numbers could be much higher. If you're curious about the statistics, look at the table on page 3 out of 15. It lists the countries where the accidents have happened, what caused them and how many people died in each one.
However, as the author points out, fatalities caused by car wrecks in the United States are at the same percentage as the ferry fatalities in Bangladesh where accidents are a big problem. (That's if you look at each country's population and the number of people who die in an accident. In the U.S. it's cars. In Bangladesh, it's ferries. That's my understanding of what I read.)
Because ferry accidents are a concern in Bangladesh and other emerging countries, a project was initiated by an organization called Interferry in 2006 to cut down on ferry accidents by 90%. The organization is focusing its efforts in Bangladesh first.
As Interferry points out, every time there is a ferry accident in a country, tourists begin to wonder about their safety when traveling there. That's not good news for an economy.
Of course, in the case of Somalia, ferry accidents probably aren't the biggest drawback to visiting. Bangladesh, I've heard, has lovely beaches.