Will Shark Attacks Take a Bite Out of Hawaii Tourism?

Record high in 2013 has stolen lives and inspired a new behavioral study.

January 6, 2014, 5:46 PM
PHOTO: A Galapagos Shark swims near the surface.
A Galapagos Shark swims near the surface.
Getty Images

Jan. 6, 2014— -- With its pristine beaches, incredible surf and underwater reefs, Hawaii has long been a favorite destination among travelers who enjoy ocean-centric vacations. But after an increase for the second year in a row in unprovoked shark attacks, tourism and spending may be in danger.

There were 14 unprovoked shark attacks across Hawaii in 2013, according to hawaiisharks.com, a site run by the state's Division of Aquatic Resources. Of those, eight attacks occurred off of Maui, one occurred off Kaua`i, one off of Oahu, and four off the coast of the Big Island. The incidents resulted in two fatalities, both tourists, and have led local agencies to encourage awareness.

READ: Shark Attack off Maui Coast Kills Man

"As an island state, we are surrounded by the ocean, so it is important that both our visitors and residents take precaution to understand ocean safety," said Mike McCartney, President and CEO of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority (HTA) in a statement to ABC News, pointing to sites including travelsmarthawaii.com, oceansafety.soest.hawaii.edu, as well as the Hawai'i state and county civil defense websites.

"It is also important that everyone heed all warning signs posted in the areas they visit and suggested that visitors consult lifeguards about water conditions when visiting the beach," McCartney said.

Hotels and resorts often echo that message in literature shared with guests.

"Ocean safety in every regard is important to us," a spokesperson for Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas told ABC News. "The resort makes beach guides readily available, as well as printing updated ocean conditions daily, which are placed in strategic places for our guests to reference."

Visitors are also inundated with information and advertisements for snorkeling cruises and surfing lessons--two activities that have been involved in repeated attacks over the last two years. Still, recent reports may be beginning to impact business.

VIDEO: Tourist Loses Arm in Shark Attack Off Hawaii

Available data through October 2013 from the Hawaiian Tourism Authority does show a decline in tourism and spending entering the fourth quarter of the year.

October 2013 was the second month that total visitor expenditures (-2.6 percent to $1.1 billion) and visitor arrivals (-1.6 percent to 636,245 visitors) to Hawai'i were less than the previous year, according to preliminary statistics released by the Hawai'i Tourism Authority. Hawai'i also witnessed slower growth in visitor arrivals since July 2013, the Authority noted in its statement.

HTA did not attribute the dip in tourism to an increase in shark attacks. But some water-related businesses may be feeling a more direct sting.

"My parents' friends own a boat tour company that has definitely been negatively affected. People are scared of snorkeling right now," said a Portland backpacker named Arwen, who hiked for a week in Kaua`i before spending the holidays with her parents, who live in Maui.

In the meantime, the spike in shark activity inspired the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to begin a behavioral study in September 2013 led by Dr. Carl Meyer.

"DLNR is paying close attention to the recent series of shark incidents statewide," said William Aila, DLNR chairperson in a statement released in the fall. "These appear to be random events involving sharks of different species and different sizes. There's nothing we can yet discern that connects the incidents or provides any sort of explanation."

A DLNR representative told ABC News that it does not expect to release any findings until 2015.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events