The lagoon at Airlie Beach where a man and his five-year-old son drowned in late October. (ABC News)
Last week, four tourists lost their lives in North Queensland waters in three days.
- Foreign tourists drowned at Airlie Beach, Fitzroy Island and Port Douglas across just three days
- Tourism council says it’s hard to get information or warnings across to consumers in every context
- Lifesavers say communication between tourism operators and travellers can be jeopardised by a desire to proceed with an activity
While the deaths are still before the coroner, questions have been raised about whether tourism authorities do enough to promote water safety to visitors.
It was a hot, sunny day in the Whitsundays last Sunday when a father and son tragically drowned in a public lagoon.
The 30-year-old Chinese man — who could not swim — and his five-year-old son were holidaying in Airlie Beach with the man’s partner and boy’s mother when they got into trouble in the lagoon’s deeper waters.
Between 2002 and 2012, international travellers accounted for 4 per cent of drowning deaths. (ABC Local: Stuart Stansfield)
Two days before this, a French tourist believed to be in his 70s died while snorkeling at Fitzroy Island, off the coast of Cairns, and another tourist died in the same weekend in waters off Port Douglas.
National manager of research and policy for the Royal Life Saving Society Australia (RLSSA), Amy Peden, said more could be done to educate people on the risks associated with the country’s many water-based activities.
“Improving swimming skills among tourists is a very difficult thing to do so I’d say education and awareness raising would be somewhat easier,” Ms Peden said.
The Queensland Tourism Industry Council has described the process as a difficult one.
Chief executive Daniel Gschwind said it was hard to get information or warnings across to consumers in every context.
“You imagine when you try to book a holiday you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of the risks you might incur when you go to this place,” Mr Gschwind said.
“So it’s not that easy to find the right spot when you communicate.”
A shared responsibility
Mr Gschwind said raising awareness must be a collaborative process.
Australia-wide drowning statistics:
- 74pc of all drowning deaths were male
- 24pc were people aged 65+
- 23pc of drowning deaths occurred at rivers, creeks and streams
- 16pc died as a result of falling into water
- 13pc were boating immediately prior to drowning
Source: Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2017
“We all have a bit of a responsibility to communicate those messages where and how we can best do it,” he said.
“Even if you are just welcoming visitors from the airport and transporting them, even then you’re kind of already in that chain of information, remind people that these beaches may be different to what they’re used to.
“We have to make sure that we deliver this information in an effective way and that, very often, involves people speaking to you.
The lagoon in Airlie Beach where a man and his five-year-old son drowned was temporarily closed. (ABC News)
“Whether that’s at the hotel or a tour guide or a transport operator or even perhaps a cafe operator on the beach.”
Paul Barry of the Royal Lifesaving Society Queensland said people in an unfamiliar environment do have extra needs.
“And if you have patrons of particular, greater needs, more lifeguards should be put on as required,” Mr Barry said.
“It’s very concerning that two people have drowned in the lagoon. Being such a tourist destination, that is very alarming,” he said.
A barrier on the reef
Ms Peden said effective communication between tourism operators and travellers can be jeopardised by a desire from both parties to proceed with the activity.
“There’s pressure on the tourist operator to conduct the tour, and pressure on the tourist who’s pre-booked a long time ago, not necessarily understanding the conditions in Australia,” she said.
She said language barriers can be fatal.
Flowers were placed by mourners after the father and son drowned at the Airlie Beach lagoon. (ABC Tropical North: Tara Cassidy)
“The other thing we see is people who don’t understand the waiver and just sign it off because it’s in English,” she said.
“I’ve seen, many times, cases of tourists who’ve drowned on the reef, scuba diving or on a charter boat, and they’ve bought their daughter or younger relative with them to translate forms for them.
“Often, I would say, it’s underestimating the risk and overestimating the ability.”
Mr Gschwind also stressed the importance of effective communication.
“Obviously the first and most important thing perhaps is to check they actually understand what is being communicated,” he said.
“Sometimes concepts are a bit alien, even if the language fits.”
Ms Peden said she would like to see organisations build on the work they currently do, giving praise to programs such as an RLSSA initiative whereby volunteer lifesavers offer beach information at airport arrival halls.
The tragic deaths of a father and son at the Airlie Beach lagoon devastated the Whitsunday community. (ABC Tropical North: Tara Cassidy)
Mr Gschwind said other existing measures include brochures and playing in-flight videos on aircraft arriving in Australia.
He said the region’s tourism operators have a good track record considering the increasing number of international visitors, but said each death is one too many.
“Whatever lessons might be learned from it, I’m sure between the industry and us, we’re always keen to see how things could be improved,” he said.