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In Puerto Rico, investing in lifeguards keeps beaches safe and sustains coastal tourism

By Gabriel Pacheco Santa, A Rinconvenient Truth.

Article trimmed. Originally posted at under the title “Responding to Tragedy, Surfers Unite for a safer Rincón.”

Since the 1960s, surfers from the United States have been coming to Rincón, Puerto Rico to catch the best waves of the winter season. The trend has been so consistent that the town has slowly built its economy along its approximate eight miles of beautiful coastline, now famous with tourists. Yet, as the surfing community continues to swell, the beaches get crowded, and the same waves that keep the local economy afloat also put tourists and locals at risk of losing their lives.

Lifeguards are the best investment in beach safety, experts say. AEDs (automated external defibrillators) and CPR training are the community’s first step to increase safety in Rincón’s beaches, [but Greg Carson from Taino Divers, who has served as the water safety expert for the Corona Surf Contest held every year at Domes Beach in Rincón, confesses] that tourists are dying because nobody is telling them when the ocean is too dangerous for them.

  “We need a lifeguarding program in Rincón because the number one tourist income in this town is surfing. When there’s surf, there’s money. If you have people drowning, and others saying, ‘Oh my god, there were crazy waves and no lifeguards on the beach,’ tourists might hear this and decide that they don’t want to come visit. Tourism might be our number one business, but I don’t see a lot happening when it comes to protecting it,” the diving instructor complained.

Ruperto Chaparro Serrano, who leads the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and has been studying the complex relationship between the archipelago’s tourism economy and the safety of its beaches for the last thirty years, echoed Carson’s words and added that his organization, along the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), already developed a blueprint for the implementation of lifeguarding in Puerto Rico back in 2008.

 After documenting the needs at 25 of the most popular beaches around the island, the two organizations published the Aquatic Safety Assessment and Recommendations for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which they shared with officials at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the Puerto Rico National Parks Company, as well as Rincón’s municipal government, amongst other relevant agencies.

This document, Chaparro Serrano explained, was supposed to be a one-stop-shop for municipal and state government officials who needed to address beach safety, but, as the researcher added, “it quickly became a reminder that they needed to invest in beach safety in order to sustain the tourism industry, so they ignored it.”

 Amongst the working group’s recommendations, the USLA highlighted that no other strategy is more effective at preventing drownings than having lifeguards on duty, an opinion that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares.

A study by Chaparro Serrano and Efrank Mendoza Martínez, who were the first to compile data about drownings in Puerto Rico from the Institute of Forensics Science (ICF, in Spanish), found that almost 30 people, mostly local young men, drowned each year from 1990-1997.  

A more recent report by Sea Grant researchers Berliz Morales Muñoz and Cristina Hernández González showed that this trend continued through 2010, and their more recent data suggests that, although the island’s tourism industry has flourished, beach safety has not improved, at least, until 2014 – the last year for which data has been compiled.

[Learn more about Sea Grant’s findings in the infographic at the end of this article]

In comparison, [Chaparro Serrano], who has visited dozens of beaches around the United States in search of safety strategies to implement back home, argued that the number of drownings at cities like Daytona Beach, Florida and San Diego, California, which host almost double the amount of tourists as the Puerto Rican archipelago on a yearly basis, never goes above the single digits thanks to their lifeguarding programs.

At Daytona Beach, particularly, he explained, professional lifeguards, who are paid anywhere from $40,000-$60,000, rescue 400 victims and warn almost 5,000 beachgoers off imminent danger every year.

Although [Puerto Rico] Sea Grant’s Director recognizes that these salaries might be too big a burden for Puerto Rican authorities, he suggested that the cost of safety and other coastal services could be tempered to Puerto Rico’s economic reality by redirecting more tourism funds towards the management of coastal resources, or by implementing a tourism occupancy tax like Florida has done, one way or another, since 1967.

“A small tax on hotel guests, targeted to beach safety could be used to fund lifeguard protection programs. As an alternative it should be noted that, thirty years ago, the State of Florida authorized a Tourism Development Tax, which has provided a funding source that is currently being utilized to provide certain lifeguard services,” reads the USLA’s aquatic safety assessment.

But for Chaparro Serrano, the situation in Rincón, his hometown, is a no brainer. “To exploit the economic potential of our natural beauty and local culture, which revolves around the beach, we need to invest in the management of our coastal resources and the safety of those who visit our beaches. Every day we don’t do this is a day we put our tourism economy at risk,” he declared.



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