Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

InsightI've lived in Honolulu for nearly nine years, so I’ve seen many reports from local news outlets about visitors who’ve been injured or killed while on vacation in Hawaii.

News of that nature probably gets more coverage here because tourism is such an important industry for the state, but I think many might agree that stories about individuals who die in accidents while vacationing with their families, or perhaps even on their honeymoon, are especially sad.

In August, a 16-year-old California girl died in a Jet Ski accident off Oahu’s South Shore when a 20-year-old Australian tourist, also on a Jet Ski, crashed into her. And earlier this summer, a 15-year-old New York boy drowned after being swept out to sea by a large wave during a hike along the rocky shoreline near the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay.

The Jet Ski tour operator is currently under investigation by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the state has already revoked the license of the tour company involved in the Big Island drowning. But both cases had me wondering whether travel agents routinely discuss ocean safety with clients before they embark on their Islands vacation.

“I always ask people how ocean savvy they are,” Paula Simpson Takamori, a Hawaii resident of more than 25 years and the owner of Oahu-based Travel to Paradise, said. “The No. 1 rule I always tell people is don’t turn your back on the ocean, and I advise them about which beaches they should go to depending on the time of year or what island they’re on. What may be a beautiful beach in the summertime on the North Shore of Oahu, with water as flat as a pancake, could have more than 20-foot swells in the winter time.”

According to the latest available Hawaii State Department of Health statistics, 339 non-residents died from injuries suffered while visiting the Islands between 2007 and 2011, and nearly half (46%) of those deaths occurred due to drowning, the most common cause of accidental death.

According to the data, 87% of the visitors who drowned during the 5-year period did so in the ocean.

In addition to Takamori, several agents I spoke with told me they did talk about ocean safety with clients, but there were others who said it wasn’t something they had considered before. Everybody seemed to think it was a good idea, however.

“People often go on vacation and do things they don’t normally do, and that can get you in trouble,” said Betty Cox, who’s been selling vacations to Hawaii for 25 years and is the owner of Travel Concepts in Fountain Valley, Calif. “There are probably a lot of people, like folks from the Midwest, for example, who aren’t regularly around the ocean and don’t know how rapidly it can change and how dangerous it can be.”

The Aloha State welcomed more than 30 million travelers between 2007 and 2011, a period during which only 118 visitors from the U.S. mainland drowned in the destination’s oceans, so despite the sea’s constant threat, Hawaii lifeguards and rescue personnel do an extraordinary job keeping visitors safe.

“I think it’s a very important thing to tell people about and raise their awareness,” said Bruce Fisher, who owns Oahu-based Hawaii Vacations, an online travel agency found at www.hawaii-aloha.com. “It’s not that people should be scared. I’m always telling people to get out of their comfort zone, do things that you haven’t done before, but make sure you know all of the ins and outs, the rules and regulations, and are up to date on the safety hazards.”

Agents interested in an excellent website for educating clients about Hawaii ocean safety basics, along with up-to-the minute condition reports for many of the state’s beaches and coastlines, should visit www.hawaiibeachsafety.org.

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