Hospitality Industry must be conscious of water safety

Published : 12:38 am  November 23, 2018 | No comments so far |  | 


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Streams and waterways may appear calm and safe, but tragedy can strike at any time.


Promoting unsafe water is a danger to guests and a threat to the industry

Swift measures vital to prevent recurrence of what happened at Huluganga 


The hospitality industry in Sri Lanka must take serious note of water safety in the pools they promote to safeguard their guests from hazardous situations. But today’s competitive tourist industry prompts certain hotels and guest-houses to, knowingly or unknowingly, promote unsafe activities, disregarding the safety of their guests. If this issue is ignored, Sri Lanka may gain a reputation for being an unsafe tourist destination, causing irreparable damage to our status as the world’s number-one tourist destination in 2019.   


Water-related deaths account for the second highest number of accidental deaths in the country annually, after road traffic incidents. According to police data, 412 people drowned from January to June this year. Nearly 760 people drowned in 2016 and 678 in 2017. But when tragedy strikes, the victims are often blamed, and no protective measures are taken or anyone held accountable. What is overlooked is that people are often guided or enticed to unsafe spots, or are unaware of potentially dangerous situations, due to the unavailability of proper safety measures and awareness mechanisms.   
When a young German tourist fell to her death off the unprotected precipice at World’s End recently she was blamed for being negligent in taking a “selfie”. But the fact that a 4,000 ft (1,200 m) cliff remains unprotected with no fence around, allowing for such fatalities to occur, remains overlooked and unaddressed.   

Another case in point is the tragic deaths of five young executives from a leading apparel company in April this year. The victims were swept away in a flash flood in Huluganga in the Knuckles range while on a pre-Avurudu outing with their colleagues. The incident left five families devastated and searching for answers. Daily Mirror re-visited this incident to highlight the inconsistencies in laws, guidelines and practices of hotels regarding water-safety, and the negligence and lack of accountability associated with it.   
On 7 April 2018, a group of 19 colleagues booked into a private two-star guest-house in the Mulberry estate in Huluganga. One of the attractions of the guest-house was a natural pool and mini-waterfall, promoted by the hotel as being in their backyard, and for the private use of their guests. It was at this natural pool that the tragedy took place. The guest-house had advertised, through on-line media, pictures of happy guests bathing and relaxing in the same location. They invite people to use the natural pool, promoting it as “our natural pond”. Promotional drone video footage shows this pool as well, panning over the area where the victims were swept away. The location is promoted as a place of “tranquility”.   

And the environment was quiet enough when the group reached the guest-house around 1.30 pm. Tired from their journey, they sought a refreshing swim. But there was no water in the hotel’s man-made pool. So they ordered lunch and stacked their bags and belonging in their rooms. They then made their way to the guest-house’s heavily-advertised natural pool, guided by a hotel worker.   
The climate was not ominous, with just a drizzle in the air. There was no cause for alarm, or so they thought. But the drizzle marked the beginning of the rainy season. The group did not know that when the Knuckles range received rainfall, water gushed downstream suddenly, creating flash floods. In fact on  November 4 2017, eight people drowned in Thelgamuwa Oya in the Laggala Police Division following flash floods. This waterway, known as Daluk Oya, also flows from the Knuckles range. But the group was unaware of the danger of flash floods. Moreover, there were no warning signs, red flags or protective structure at the pool that should have warned them. The water was just knee-deep, and the natural pool was clear and calm.   


But sources pointed out that the change in the sky above the Knuckles range was visible to the guest-house, and the hotel should not, under any circumstances, have allowed their guests to use the natural pool under such weather conditions. In fact in one social media post the guest-house says the “rain is over and this is the perfect time to jump into the stream”, indicating they knew of the dangers of rain.   
Witnesses to the tragedy said a large volume of muddy water had suddenly crashed downstream and swept the five victims away. The high gradient and rocky terrain blocked any chance of escape. The others had briefly got out of the water just before the wave descended, if not the death toll would have been higher. The survivors ran up to the guest-house crying for help, and then ran down towards the town to seek help from the villagers, some of whom risked their lives to recover the bodies from the raging waters.   
Pradeshiya Sabha Member Sudantha Liyanage who helped in the rescue operation said villagers knew of the danger of flash floods downstream when there was rain in the Knuckles range above. He said the drowning of the group was preventable, and blamed the guest-house for negligence. “The hotel has built a pathway to the natural pool. This shows that they knew their guests would definitely go down there. The hotel should have employed a trained guide or at least someone experienced from the village to direct guests to this place. Any villager would have told you it was dangerous to go down to the pool at that time,” he said. “There are ten to fifteen hotels built along the Knuckles range. They don’t provide any guides. That day there were 19 guests who visited the hotel, but there was only an old couple in the hotel to prepare meals. Lives would not be lost in this manner if hotels simply employed experienced guides,” 
he added.   


Lawyer and academic Kelum Samarasena, who runs a social-media platform called ‘Safe Waters’ which alerts people on water safety and possible flash floods, said flash floods were common from mid-March to early-April, which was when the Huluganga tragedy took place. Samarasena who visited the site of the tragedy noted that only visitors to the guest-house had access to the natural pool, and no one could reach it unless guided, as it was secluded. “The hotel had taken no reasonable care to prevent the drownings. Evidence shows that the hotel had directed, guided, not supervised, not discouraged or warned to a reasonable degree, the group of 19 guests, about a danger that could be termed as reasonably foreseeable,” he said. “Culpability and liability should therefore lie with the hotel under tort of negligence of Civil Law,” he added.   
Mr. Samarasena noted that in cases of negligence parents could take legal action, but they often blamed such incidents on fate and beliefs. “Legal action for negligence is shamefully low because Sri Lankans are culturally conditioned,” he said. He cited the case where a prominent beach hotel in Kalutara was held liable for the acts of a driver. In that case the car had collided with a train and the tourists in the car were injured. “Drowning is a silent killer. Nothing appears to have been done to address drowning,” he stressed. 


President of Sri Lanka Life Saving (SLLS), Asanka Nanayakkara, said the guidelines to prevent drownings in hotel pools were insufficient. “The Tourism Act states the minimum requirements that should be followed, but the guidelines are insufficient to prevent drowning incidents,” he said. “As a national association we follow the Australian guidelines. But there is no regulation to enforce these on hotels,” he added. “Hotels usually display a red flag or warning sign, irrespective of whether the water is calm or not. Certain five-star hotels in Sri Lanka have boards saying there are no lifeguards on duty and that people should swim at their own risk,” he said. Nanayakkara recommended the deployment of life guards as the “best solution”.


Commenting on safety measures to prevent drowning in pools, President of The Hotels’ Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), Sanath Ukwatte, said hotels must follow the internationally accepted practice of placing red flags. “If there’s a red flag on a beach and a person takes a bath it’s at their own risk. Most hotels have lifeguards in pools and on the beach,” he said. But he added that most guest-houses are not registered, which highlights a serious gap to effectively monitoring the safety of guests at hotels.


Meanwhile media spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Rasika Jayakody pointed out that a pool belonging to a licensed guest-house, be it a swimming pool or a natural pool, falls within the quality control measures of the SLTDA. He added that all guest-houses must be Tourist Board registered, and places not registered were illegal. “Operating without a license is illegal for a restaurant, guest-house or tourist hotel. A license is not optional, it is mandatory under the Tourism Act of 2005. The Enforcement Unit of SLTDA is pursuing legal action against service providers who repeatedly ignore our warnings to obtain a valid license,” he warned. He added that nearly 50 percent of hotels and similar service providers operating in Sri Lanka were not registered.   
Regulations made under Section 49(1) of the Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005 states that precautions should be taken in sea-side hotels and hotels with swimming pools for the safety of the users. Further, cautionary and warning signs conforming to international standards must be displayed prominently. Depth markings and internationally accepted safety signs should be permanently displayed, and suitably qualified lifeguards should be available at pools. Further, the hotel should be covered by Comprehensive Hoteliers’ Insurance Policy including public liability and workmen’s compensation. But whether all hotels adhere to such laws and standards is doubtful, especially in the context of many remaining unregistered.   
“The public should check if their hotel is licensed before checking-in. The SLTDA urges the public to use licensed tourism service providers as they have to adhere to strict quality controls,” Mr. Jayakody said. He said that under the Tourism Act it was mandatory to inspect such establishments annually. “Pre-requisition of the fire safety certificate and insurance policy covering public liability is mandatory in order to register or renew the license,”  he stressed.   
Recently, a National Plan to reduce drowning-related deaths was introduced. The plan aims at creating public awareness and formulating a risk profile for beaches and waterways in Sri Lanka. It advocates training and forming lifesaving teams, conducting investigations and assessments on drowning and water safety, contributing to tourism development through safe water related activities, formulating water safety rules and regulations, collecting, compiling and preserving data for analysis and evaluation, and establishing a media unit on water safety.   


"Recently, a National Plan to reduce drowning-related deaths was introduced. The plan aims at creating public awareness and formulating a risk profile for beaches and waterways in Sri Lanka"

The full implementation of this National Plan is urgently needed, especially as incidents of drowning in pools promoted by hotels and guest-houses are preventable. It is imperative that hoteliers take cognizance of required safety measures to prevent drownings and other similar deaths. Where the law is unclear and inadequate,it must be revamped, and authorities must strictly monitor whether adequate safety measures are in place. Violators should be penalized. Mushrooming unregistered illegal guest-houses and hotels further complicate the problem by jeopardizing the lives of guests. Tourists are enticed by promotional material urging them to enjoy the pleasures of nature, and blissfully indulge in water-related activities. In a bid to multiply profits, hoteliers often neglect their guests’ safety. If there is no calculated attempt to create awareness of such dangers, authorities will be unable to avert more preventable deaths, and innocent lives will continue to be lost in vain.