When I first arrived in Hawai‘i, I stayed with a search and rescue pilot for the Coast Guard. Over the course of living together, I watched him get called out for a variety of rescue operations. Two people swept off the sea cliffs by a wave. Someone dragged out to sea by the current. A person who fell to their death on a ridge hike. Most of these incidents were not reported on the news, but because I lived with him, I was privy to just how often things go wrong here in paradise, and just how unaware most people are of the problem.
The arrangement was a blessing in disguise, because I too had a very naive and overconfident view of Hawai‘i. I had come from the Rocky Mountains, navigating the elements of high-alpine terrain. Hawai‘i, by comparison, with its pretty beaches and small “mountains,” seemed like a piece of cake. Little did I know that these islands are a Venus flytrap, a place so beautiful that it draws people into its wrath unknowingly.
For these islands, whose notoriously rough surf results in a high rate of drownings, the task of keeping visitors safe has been a battle that too often runs under the radar.
Residents and local organizations are always trying to figure out how to keep Hawai‘i safe from the impacts of tourism, launching preventative efforts that span a wide range, including signs requesting proper behavior at heiaus across the State, statutes limiting the number of cars at the Haleakalā summit, and environmental educational efforts at places like Hanauma Bay, Volcanoes National Park, and others.
But are we forgetting the other side of the coin? According to the data, we also need to figure out a way to keep visitors safe from Hawai‘i.
Back to Back to Back
On a whole, the State has drawn criticism in recent years for not doing more to provide consistent messaging to visitors. Most memorably, a 2016 editorial from the Honolulu Civil Beat called out Hawai‘i lawmakers for their seeming indifference towards public safety.
A prime example was when the State’s House failed to support legislation in 2013 that would have encouraged airlines to show ocean safety videos to visitors. Rep. Tom Brower infamously expressed his concerns by suggesting that “the proposed video might unnecessarily raise fears or hurt the state’s idyllic reputation among tourists.”
The tendency for lawmakers to avoid the topic is one that continues to be denounced by local media, mostly because visitor deaths continue to occur at alarming rates. In another Civil Beat report called Dying For Vacation, which analyzed the frequency, cause, and reaction to visitor deaths in Hawai‘i, it was revealed that nearly one visitor a week died from July 2012-2015 while many others suffered severe spinal injuries that left them partially paralyzed.
More recently, in a span of nine days in January 2017, three visitors to Kaua‘i were tragically killed by nature. Two were cases of drowning, one at Po‘ipū Beach and the other at Moloa‘a. The third died when she fell from the steep cliffs of the Kalalau Trail. These are heartbreaking stories of people who came to Hawai‘i for a good time, who came here on vacation, whose families had an empty seat next to them on the plane ride back home.
Playing the Blame Game
Given these statistics, it is easy to point the finger and say that the government should be doing more. But there are other factors at work that contribute to the problem and turn the attention back on personal responsibility, not just of the persons directly involved for things like jumping barriers, but on some of the very same national media that is quick to criticize the State. For example, consider this gushing description of Queen’s Bath on Kaua‘i from a travel publication:
Emerging from the tropical foliage onto the rocky shoals of the lava surf, the glistening pools hang over the ocean like a queenly throne… Slipping triumphantly into the brisk waters of the caldera, you could be a crony of Kamehameha himself, observing all around you the pinnacle of natural spectacle: the shimmering cliffs of Nā Pali, the endless horizon of Pacific blue… As far as wading pools go, this one makes the oasis at the Flamingo Hilton look like the drainage ditch behind Toby’s Crab Shack.
From this romanticized depiction, you would never know that nearly 30 people have died at Queen’s Bath, or that it’s one of the most dangerous places to swim in the Hawaiian Islands.
For Sue Kanoho, Executive Director of the Kaua‘i Tourism Board, this kind of irresponsible reporting is something that’s grown to be overly prevalent and increasingly detrimental to public safety.
Every week, thousands of visitors rely on print and electronic guide books for information and suggestions on Kaua‘i, and many times they list or recommend places that are known to be dangerous, like Queen’s Bath today or, going back a few years, Kipu Falls. Some guide books promoted the latter as a “glorious hidden little place” before it later became known, tragically, as “the pool of death.”
“I spend a lot of time calling people and saying, ‘You’re hurting the destination by pretending this place or that place is a good place to go,'” said Kanoho. “If you put it in [the guide book] and you’re sending people to places that are known to be dangerous, then you should be held accountable.”
This aspect of responsibility was so heavily debated on Kaua‘i a few years ago that it went on to be tested in the legislature. In 2011, a bill was introduced that would hold authors of guide books accountable if injuries or deaths resulted from their recommendations. The bill was supported by the visitor industry, but ultimately, concerns about first amendment free speech caused it to be rejected.
We continue to see varying levels of hypocrisy today throughout the travel media. Some of the very same outlets who publish articles to put pressure on Hawai‘i lawmakers have also written sensationalized travel articles that encourage trespassing and/or dangerous behavior within the State. A prime example is the Huffington Post, who published a critical article entitled “Way Too Many Tourists Are Dying In Hawai‘i” in May 2016, and then followed it up in August with another entitled “There’s An Incredible And Super Illegal Waterslide Hidden In Hawai‘i” that glorified a dangerous and illegal activity and provided extensive links, directions, and videos about how to get there.
Solutions Going Forward?
Kanoho has tried tirelessly throughout her tenure to make the public more aware of potential danger, implore the government to pass regulations, and to call out the media when they talk out of both sides of their mouth.
She’s petitioned airlines to show ocean safety videos, and tried to get television networks to run profiles of people who have gotten into trouble and survived, hoping that people might learn from the experiences of others. Neither idea has yet to fully materialize.
In the case of the former, only Hawaiian Airlines has ever run such a safety video. All the national airlines declined to air it.
One month ago on February 8, 2018, Civil Beat reported that 10 people – 8 of them visitors – had drowned on Maui in the previous three weeks. The string of deaths has prompted the State Legislature to come up with solutions, though Civil Beat questions the likelihood of improved measures given the State’s poor track record, which includes letting a liability policy expire last year that protected lifeguards from lawsuits.
Some solutions that have been thrown around are putting ocean safety warning sheets in hotel rooms, and/or requiring companies to attach them to rental snorkel gear. Another is to use stronger language in already existing warning videos and signs. But Civil Beat notes in the article that “the Legislature has been reluctant to do anything that could potentially hurt the tourism industry that drives the state economy.” One of the biggest concerns stated by the Legislature is that strong warnings might cause visitors to view Hawai‘i as an unsafe destination.
It begs the question: At what point does that last part become true? You can keep up with all the latest in Hawai‘i safety news here.