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Tourism not menaced, officials say of sharks

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Another shark attack last week makes an alarming 14 in Hawaii this year, two of them fatalities, prompting worldwide press coverage, including stories in such publications as National Geographic and Time exploring why the islands are experiencing a spike in attacks.

Anyone nervous about whether all this might take a bite out of Hawaii’s tourism image?

"Obviously, we don’t want to become Australia," said George Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

Most tourism officials who spoke to the Star-Advertiser said they don’t believe they’ve seen any affect on visitor arrivals. In fact, some 8 million tourists have visited Hawaii in the past year despite the high number of shark attacks — 10 — in 2012.

But with each new incident, and especially when a death is involved, Hawaii gains a little more notoriety — such as when the Animal Planet television network named Hawaii No. 4 in its feature describing the "10 Most Dangerous Places for a Shark Attack."

Some officials worry about the bad publicity. Szigeti said he broached the topic at a recent meeting with colleagues.

Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, acknowledged that officials are aware of the shark problem and have been discussing it.

Kanoho added that she’s thankful Kauai hasn’t had to endure any shark attacks this year.

"But when any island experiences a challenge, we’re all feeling it," she said.

A 29-year-old Captain Cook bodyboarder was bitten by a 10- to 12-foot tiger shark Wednesday morning off Naalehu, Hawaii island.

It was the 14th shark incident this year — four more than last year’s unprecedented total. Historically, Hawaii averaged between two and three shark attacks a year in the 1980s. During the past two decades, the annual average edged up to between three and four shark attacks.

In response to the rising numbers, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has launched a two-year study to track shark movements and behavior.

Meanwhile, some beachfront hotel properties report working more closely with lifeguards and state officials regarding water safety.

Michael Palazzato, head of security at the Grand Wai­lea on Maui, said his office is taking more directives from state aquatic officials when they post warnings about shark sightings or attacks.

"Any time you look in the future at what clouds are on the horizon, you see what’s there, and this is certainly one of them," said Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, working with Starwood Hotels. "You have to look at your safety measures and make sure they are updated."

Vieira said he’s confident Starwood is doing a good job of warning guests about potential ocean dangers, but added that there’s a balance to how much warning should be given.

"You don’t want a sign every 10 feet," he said.

Hawaii is an "experiential place" where visitors and residents expect a certain amount of danger anywhere they go in the wild, whether it’s hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean, Vieira said.

"When you’re not lying on the beach, anything can happen to you," he said.

Officials point out that Florida historically sees more shark attacks than Hawaii and that its $33 billion tourism business is doing OK. But this year Hawaii has logged one more incident than has the Sunshine State.

"From our perspective, you should always be concerned about how our guests are doing," said Elizabeth Churchill, senior vice president of sales and marketing of the Aqua Hospitality hotel chain.

But sharks are part of the unique environment, Churchill said. "It’s one of the aspects of living in an ocean state."

Szigeti, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association CEO, is a longtime surfer who used to compete professionally. He said there’s not much you can do when a growing number of tourists and residents are playing in the water.

"There are 10 times more odds of getting killed when you get in your car and go to the airport," he said.

Mike Murray, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Waikiki Beach Activities, said the problem has not been an issue for his company. In fact, he said, his surf school has never been stronger.

"Not one customer has inquired about it or had any hesitation about signing up with us," he said.

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