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Let's help our visitors be safe

LAST UPDATED: 6:27 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Pristine tropical waterfalls, spectacular rugged coastlines, stunning views of lush valleys — these are among the images used by the tourism industry to entice visitors to our shores. It's an implicit promise: Come to Hawaii and experience these natural wonders for yourself.

What is not advertised are the risks. Waterfalls may be on private land and deadly for swimmers. A sightseer standing on slippery rocks at the water's edge can be knocked into the water by crashing waves. Hikers seeking those stunning views have fallen to their deaths from narrow ridge trails of crumbing basalt.

Recent fatalities linked to Hawaii's natural attractions have raised fresh concerns about the vulnerability of adventuresome visitors unfamiliar with Hawaii's hidden dangers. They also raise questions about the liability for government and private landowners. Two things are clear: First, unwary visitors, whether through ignorance or recklessness, continue to put themselves at risk. Second, more should be done to warn visitors of potential hazards.

On July 9, a Northern California man disappeared after being knocked into the sea at the Nakalele Point blowhole on Maui. Others continued to congregate around the dangerous area even after learning of the accident. The following day, another visitor was knocked off a rocky cliff in the Hawaiian Paradise Park subdivision, swept offshore and killed. On June 26, a visitor from Irvine, Calif., drowned at Kauai's Kipu Falls — the fifth drowning victim there in five years.

Not every accident can be prevented, and most of the millions of visitors to Hawaii enjoy the state's attractions without incident. Moreover, the state Legislature passed several laws that limit liability.

Hawaii Revised Statute 663-1.56 requires the state or counties operating public beach parks to warn the public about dangerous ocean conditions. Appropriate warning signs "shall be conclusively presumed to be legally adequate." Legislation passed in 2003, Act 82, provides similar rules for improved public lands such as trail systems.

For private landowners, the Hawaii Recreational Use Statute provides limited protection from lawsuits. With some exceptions, "an owner of land owes no duty of care" to maintain safe premises or give any warning of dangerous conditions to those who access the land, without charge, for recreational purposes.

Even so, there are enough gray areas to raise concerns. In April, a Circuit Court judge held that the state was fully liable in the deaths of two women who walked off a steep cliff near Opaekaa Falls on Kauai in 2006. There was no warning sign on the unofficial trail the victims apparently took.

In 2002, a visitor was killed at the Hanola Blowhole in east Oahu. Signs were posted in the parking lot, but not along the shoreline from where he approached the area. The case was settled out of court.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and large landowners attempted to protect themselves further by supporting legislation that would hold liable authors and publishers of tourist guidebooks who write about dangerous attractions not open to the public. This assault on the First Amendment was sweepingly vague and legally unsustainable. Fortunately, it failed.

Nonetheless, the effort highlighted the reasonable proposition that all those promoting Hawaii tourism — from guidebook authors to the Hawaii Tourism Authority — should be more candid with visitors about the hazards hidden in the islands' beauty. The islands are wide open. Not every dangerous thing can be fenced off. Unwary, uninformed visitors will make mistakes.

A more intensive effort to educate, whether through more prominent placement on websites and in printed guides, or just word of mouth, would be a welcome service for Hawaii's guests. After all, we want them to remember their visit fondly, and to come back.

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