For many of the 8.8 million people who will fly and cruise to Hawaii this year, the trip will be the vacation of a lifetime, a chance to explore one of the world’s most beautiful island archipelagos. From the soaring mountain ranges to the lush valleys and rain forests to the picture-perfect beaches and inviting turquoise surf, spending time on our islands can be a dream come true.

But not for everyone. As Civil Beat’s Dying for Vacation recent series showed, Hawaii is also a place where tourists die — at least 147 over the past three years, nearly half of them from drowning. Thousands more have to be rescued from Hawaii’s coastal areas each year, where they commonly suffer injuries, including paralysis-causing spinal fractures.

While each death carries its own weight of sadness, preventable deaths and life-changing injuries are particularly tragic. They leave us with a sense that if only a picture-taking tourist had fully understood, for instance, that unexpected and strong waves can photobomb a beautiful rocky outcropping with undeniable force, she might not have been swept out to sea.

Visitors laugh and enjoy an errant shore break wave while not paying attention to the wave sets at Sandy Beach.
Visitors laugh and enjoy an errant shore break wave while not paying attention to the wave sets at Sandy Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Or that if a visitor perhaps carrying a few extra pounds and maybe not the healthiest heart history had truly appreciated the stress that snorkeling can place on inexperienced circulatory and respiratory systems, he might have sought a less risky way to enjoy Hawaii’s Pacific waters.

Are we doing enough to protect tourists against such ends? Are we effectively delivering warnings and other critical information regarding the special dangers that await the unprepared and uneducated in what can be enticingly beautiful locations throughout our islands?

Data and anecdotal evidence suggest the answer to those questions is no. Hawaii’s visitor drowning rate of 5.7 per million dwarfs those of states with heavy beach tourism like Florida (we’re more than six times higher) and North Carolina (more than 10 times higher). Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related Hawaii tourist deaths, with snorkeling as the activity most of those were engaged in when they met their ends.

Lifeguards, emergency room physicians and safety experts have long advocated for more aggressive education and warning messages for tourists who too often fail to get safety information or for whatever reason don’t take it seriously. State safety officials, legislators and tourism industry veterans say a new culture of risk-taking among some tourists combined with safety outreach methods that are so low key or passive, they’re easily overlooked and add up to an environment more fraught with danger than it should be.

One answer to such challenges would be to staff up in the one profession that makes the biggest difference in avoiding beach tragedies: lifeguards. But the costs of staffing lifeguard towers is so prohibitive and the number of Hawaii’s beaches so extensive that it’s simply not realistic to think we might ever be able to provide even partial lifeguard coverage for a majority of them.

Safety experts say don't swim at beaches where there is no lifeguard. But beefing up the lifeguard system is expensive.
Safety experts say don’t swim at beaches where there is no lifeguard. But beefing up the lifeguard system is expensive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That shouldn’t absolve us of trying to provide more lifeguards. But it should also motivate legislative, tourism and safety leaders to reach out to visitors in ways that have far greater impact than the means currently used.

In some areas, that wouldn’t be terribly difficult. A safety video produced for use on in-bound flights has been mostly shunned by airlines, and instead competes for visitors’ attention at baggage carousel displays with the need to identify and retrieve checked luggage.

Identifying additional locations and channels in airports, cruise ship terminals and hotels where that video and others can be shown represents an immediate opportunity for state and county safety officials.

But far greater opportunities for such videos and an endless variety of other information and messages exists in the relatively unused digital environment. That’s why we’re supportive of Hawaii Tourism Authority’s efforts to develop an application for mobile devices that would provide educational safety information.

In particular, we urge HTA to be forward-thinking in how it conceives the presentation of that info. Smart phones, smart watches and tablets can not only receive text and still images, their users are more likely to be engaged by video, animations, data visualizations, social media campaigns and the ability to share and comment on all of those options with other users.

Imagine an app, for instance, that uses global positioning system data to identify a beach goer’s location and not only provides real-time info on sea conditions but video animations of what conditions look like beneath the waves — how dramatically water depths increase as swimmers move further from the shore, or special geographic features that contribute to dangerous conditions.

Users might be allowed to enable such an app to push text messages if safety conditions change for a beach they plan to visit or are visiting. Too often, visitors now judge beach safety solely on visual perceptions, which can be misleading, ignore warning signs and climb over guardrails specifically designed to keep them out of harm’s way.

Enhancing safety related partnerships with airlines, cruise lines and travel-related companies serving Hawaii visitors would help get such an app on more visitors’ mobile devices well before they ever reach our state. That would provide more opportunities to educate tourists, helping them to make better choices about where they’ll go and what they’ll do once they reach Hawaii.

As the digital environment grows and evolves, with ever more mobile devices, applications and capabilities coming online, it behooves HTA, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau and others communicating with our visitors to make the most creative and effective use of these means to help our tourists protect themselves.

We fully appreciate that more aggressive warnings and education campaigns may make some nervous whose businesses and jobs are funded by the $16 billion spent by visitors in Hawaii each year. Government officials might share that anxiety, given the $1.6 billion that tourism delivers annually in tax revenue.

Oheo Gulch, commonly called Seven Sacred Falls, is promoted as a must-visit attraction on Maui.
Oheo Gulch, commonly called Seven Sacred Falls, is promoted as a must-visit attraction on Maui. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

But the choice isn’t between leaving visitors in the dark where safety is concerned or scaring them so badly they’re afraid to leave their hotel rooms. The challenge of safety communications can be met with the same level of sensitivity, creativity and aloha that has made Hawaii one of the world’s leading tourism brands.

The moral imperative behind doing so is clear.

With 2016 expected to be another record year for tourism, a new task force is exploring ways to improve ocean safety. In September, a committee of 12 key players from Hawaii’s various tourist and ocean safety agencies met for the first time.

The Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee is already focusing on areas ranging from social media to safety-related partnerships with tourism industry partners to identifying high-risk beaches where more lifeguards or more training may be needed. The group’s work potentially represents good initial steps toward a new ocean safety strategy.

Doing more to help prevent those who are unnecessarily dying for vacation in Hawaii is clearly the pono choice for a state whose tourism industry is often driven by traditional Hawaiian values and ideals.  A good host does all that can be reasonably done to ensure the safety of guests.

There are opportunities aplenty to do more in 2016. With the dangers as thorough detailed as they were in Dying for Vacation, there is no excuse to avoid this challenge any longer.

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