Parasailing death: Major overhaul of water sports needed

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What we see now is the decline of beach tourism in Penang due to the inaction of policy makers in curbing accidents and understanding the tourism industry, observes Syerleena Abd Rashid.

Parasailing in Penang - Photo courtesy of travel.webshots.com
Parasailing in Penang – Photo courtesy of travel.webshots.com

Over the past few years, we’ve been all too familiar with the questionable safety measures taken by several water sports operators in Penang. I have personally witnessed many water sports-related accidents in Batu Ferringhi – some near misses and some serious accidents.

The worst thing that could happen for an operator is causing someone to die whilst participating in these activities and on 9 October 2013, it happened. Aldakhilallad Eman Mohamed, 35, a Saudi national who was on a family trip to celebrate the completion of her PhD thesis, died tragically – she slipped out of her parasailing harness and fell 30 metres. Her family witnessed the whole incident from the beach.

The news of her death raised more questions and left the public wondering if there is any political will to improve this industry. As someone who is familiar with this industry, I wonder how many more bodies we need for someone to improve the safety standards of this business. As a parasailing instructor, I believe this accident could have been prevented if proper safety measures had been taken such as:

  • The staff should have refused to allow her to participate due to the weight limit and lack of appropriate harness size
  • Staff should have paid close attention to wind conditions to enable a safe descent
  • Operators should have ensured there was a spotter on the boat, which is a boating requirement.

But we should not waste time finding out who is to blame. Instead, we should focus on methods to improve the industry. Like it or not, there is a demand for water sports and policy makers have a responsibility to ensure public safety.

There must be greater emphasis on the importance of education and training.

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Unlike in developed nations, the water sports industry here has gone unchecked for too long. The state government and local authorities have taken some positive measures such as:

  • Introducing a Penang Watercraft Enactment Act 1999 (but this only covers jetskis);
  • Establishing zones to identify registered water sports operators (but this does not eliminate “ghost companies” nor does it address the need for professionally qualified operators);
  • Establishing separate zones for water sports activities (parasailing zone, jetski zone and swimming zone);
  • Banning quad bikes (ATVs) on the beach;
  • Ensuring the presence of MPPP enforcement personnel (although there have been numerous complaints about the lack of enforcement in Batu Ferringhi);
  • Setting up the Penang Watercraft Operators Association, which acts as a medium for operators to co-operate with local authorities (but hoping that the operators will co-operate and self-govern will not happen under present circumstances).

But these are not the long term solutions that Penang needs. Although water sports accidents do happen, they are usually always preventable if conducted by qualified and responsible people. As an industry that is categorised as “high-risk”, the last thing our policy makers should do is treat it like the night markets in Batu Ferringhi.

There is a great sense of denial, which is evident in present rules and regulations made by “amateurs”, denying the fact that they themselves lack qualifications and understanding of the industry requirements. Therein lies the main source of the problem: the inability to comprehend safety regulations and procedures and the lack of intellect to deliver or conduct water sports activities responsibly.

Some water sports operators might argue that having 30 years of experience is enough – but this is not a valid justification. Who trained these operators 30 years ago and which guidelines did they follow? What procedures or regulations were in place then to justify this kind of argument?

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Why have they not been able to improve industry standards? Decades of unchecked activities do not qualify an operator to present themselves on a professional level. It all boils down to whether operators and those they employ have the qualifications and the integrity to operate in this industry.

This is an industry where regulations and guidelines must be clearly stated.

Water sports is a special kind of industry that embodies both sports and tourism, thus creating, sports tourism. This concept seems to be rather new in Malaysia but it has been recognised by other countries as a legit industry which has significant economic impact.

“Water sports” is a broad term coined to refer to all sports that are conducted on or in water (pool, river, lake, sea or ocean). This is then divided into two, motorised (i.e. powerskis, jetskis, powerboats, parasailing, banana boats/tubing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, kneeboarding, wakeskating) and non-motorised (.i.e. kite surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, water polo, surfing, sailing, boogie boarding, skimboarding ) and other activities that are generally accepted such as scuba diving and snorkelling.

Locally, the way this industry is practised emphasises quick monetary gains; hence, only money-making activities such as jetski rentals and parasailing are offered. Other water sports disciplines such as sailing or wakeboarding, which require time and effort to learn, are not.

“Beach boys”, a term used to refer to those working in the industry, usually are unskilled and unqualified – basically, people who have no options left. It is easy to work on the beach as there are no regulations and requirements needed. To reiterate my previous statement about experience, no matter how many years of experience these “beach boys” might have, it still does not qualify them to represent this industry in the same vein as their professional counterparts in developed countries like Australia or Hong Kong.

The presence of commission-based beach boys, those who are not directly employed under a company but work on a freelance basis to get clients, is damaging. Most of the accidents occur because there is a total disregard for safety, and the marketing of these activities is motivated by the prospect of short-term monetary gains. This in turn leads to another barrage of issues such as fleecing/cheating and harassment.

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There needs to be public involvement and understanding about the water sports industry. To fully understand the problems, we must tackle their root causes by:

  • establishing skills training and introducing professional qualifications (not one-day workshops);
  • introducing industry guidelines;
  • ensuring that operators and those employed must have the right intellect to understand the science of the water sports industry.

Oral history has it that the first ever water sports center opened in the 1970s in Batu Ferringhi. Over the years, the industry flourished as the demand for such activities increased with the tourism boom in Penang.

What we see now is the decline of beach tourism in Penang due to the inaction of policy makers in curbing accidents and understanding the market needs of the tourism industry. Water sports is part of sports tourism which is then, part of tourism. There is a relationship that co-exists and must be protected.

The water sports industry needs to be improved, if Penang wants to turn itself into an international tourism hub. As a matter of fact, the whole system needs to undergo a major overhaul. Thorough analysis must be made and we need to focus on policies that can guarantee long-term benefits.

Things must change for the sake of tourism and the economic dynamism of Penang.

Syerleena Abd Rashid, an Aliran member, is a water sports instructor and part-time postgraduate student in tourism development. She is devoting her research to improving and developing the water sports industry in Penang.

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