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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 21, 2006

Visitors bureau says beach is safe

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

After a sewage spill temporarily closed Waikiki beaches, Hawai'i's tourism industry has been faced with maintaining the delicate balance of keeping visitors safe and informed without scaring them away.

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau, which markets the state to North America, recently fielded a couple of questions about the safety of the sand.

The HVCB responded to an e-mail inquiry about the sand last week, saying, "We were informed by the Department of Health that Waikiki Beach is open and safe, and that there is no scientific evidence that the sand in Waikiki is toxic. There is no scientific data available that would indicate that the sand has harmful bacteria in it from the sewage spill. No testing of the sand is being conducted by any state agency nor has there ever been any testing of the sand."

The HVCB added this suggestion: "A rule of thumb for people to remember is to wash with soap and clean water after enjoying a day at the beach. Beachgoers should always remember that if they have an open wound they should stay out of the water."

A local resident said his foot became infected last week from walking on the sand of a Waikiki beach. George Koenig, 65, is treating the swollen foot with medication and said he wants officials to test the sand.

State health officials say testing is unnecessary because the beach sand is as clean now as before 48 million gallons of raw sewage were pumped into Ala Wai Canal last month after a force main ruptured.

The tourism industry is relaying that message.

"We're basically restating information that we get from the Department of Health," said Darlene Morikawa, HVCB director of public relations and communications. "We want to make sure the information we have out there is factual, and we definitely would not promote Waikiki Beach if we were told it was not safe."

Morikawa said HVCB has only received two inquiries about the sand.

"What we're trying to do is share information with people without causing a level of hysteria," she said. "We're trying to be cautious with people and tell them the correct information, and that's the best we can do."

Hotels say they are relaying state Department of Health information to guests with any questions about the safety of the beach.

Outrigger Hotels & Resorts spokeswoman Nancy Daniels said any guests who inquire about the water are told "that we've been advised that it's all clear and safe to go in the water according to the Department of Health."

Daniels said queries about the water have tapered off and that front desk staff hasn't received any questions about the sand.

A spokesman for Sheraton properties in Waikiki said the hotels are telling inquiring guests that the state removed warning signs. If they have further questions, they are referred to the Hawai'i Tourism Authority's Web site.

The HTA's Web site has a link to its travelsmarthawaii.com site, which has a "Hawaii Travel Update" letter dated April 13 from HTA President and CEO Rex Johnson. The letter says that after an unusually rainy March, the tropical spring weather has returned. It includes a link to the National Weather Service.

The letter also says, "It's a great time to explore the Hawai'i 'beyond the beach.' Come and experience a hula festival ... or discover the unique arts and handicrafts of the islands."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.