As the British Virgin Islands’ tourism product continues to grow, beach safety and local capacity to respond to large-scale emergencies remain a concern.
In a recent interview with 284 Media, Junior Minister for Culture and Tourism Honourable Luce Hodge Smith reflected on the importance of safety for the Tourism Sector.
While she couldn’t go into detail in some instances, she said that work continues to build capacity within local agencies.
Highlighting the continued efforts of the Department of Disaster Management, the Junior Minister stressed the importance of having stakeholders involved in emergency preparedness activities.
Recently Fire Chief Zebalon McLean addressed the standing finance committee on the untenable risks posed by lifeguard understaffing.
It is generally recommended to have at least one lifeguard per 20 – 25 swimmers at beaches.
With more tourists flocking to the territory’s most dangerous beaches, the risk of drownings and injuries rises substantially without proper supervision.
Reports are that one day prior to our Smugglers Cove visit, beachgoers observed several rescues and near emergencies as a single lifeguard attended to a large crowd of visitors.
Hodge Smith said plans are in the works to address the lifeguard shortage.
On January 24th, the Beach Safety Advisory informed of a Large North East Swell, Wind Force 4 – 5 with Gustings Force 6. It advised extreme care on all North Shore Beaches due to high surf and rip currents.
At Josiah’s Bay our team was unsure whether the lack of swimmers that day was a result of the people heeding the advisory or due to the rain experienced that morning.
Conversation with people there suggested the latter and compounded previous reports that the beach had been growing in popularity as a stop for cruise ship visitors and day-trippers.
That day, no lifeguard was on duty at Josiah’s Bay.
At Smugglers Cove, our arrival coincided with that of 2 loads of tourists.
And a period of no rain.
After which, despite 2 red flags in visible positions on the beach, and visibly poor conditions, we observed people beginning to get in the water.
One going as far as to signal their group to the presence of a lifeguard, one of only 2 in Territory, and the only one on the beach that day, before getting in.
We also observed children left unattended at various points while playing in sloped sand away from their presumed guardian, as the large waves crashed on the shore.
While those were our observations, what else is being said on the issue of water safety in the BVI?
A report by the Sister Islands Unit of the Office of the Deputy Governor that was leaked to the press in January 2023, reflected on the worrying situation surrounding a lack of lifeguards at The Baths National Park, a site known for having large groups of visitors at any given time.
“In 2022, Virgin Islands Fire and Rescue confirmed over thirty emergency calls at The Baths National Park. Seeing sometimes over 1,000 guests a day on cruise ship call days, it is imperative that lifeguards are placed at this location when the National Park is open. However, there was a full plan developed for this program, but never implemented due to a lack of resources”, the report said.
The international community has also reflected on the matter in various forums.
One instance is found on the BVI’s Wikipedia page which states “Unusually, the territory has one of the highest drowning mortality rates in the world, being higher than other high-risk countries such as China and India. 20% of deaths in the British Virgin Islands during 2012 were recorded as drownings, all of them being tourists. Despite this, the territory’s most popular beach still has no lifeguard presence.”