Reunion Island Warning
MALDIVES

Réunion Island tourism industry follows fatal shark attack with PR push

When a bull shark fatally tore a 15-year-old French girl in half while she swam off the coast of Réunion, the remote Indian Ocean island’s tourism leaders expressed their “terrible shock” and “heartfelt sympathies” to the victim’s family.

But that didn’t stop the Ile de la Réunion Island Tourisme (IRT) from touting the island’s “pristine swimming beaches” and array of less-threatening wildlife, including dolphins, whales and turtles, in the same press release.

For good measure, they emphasized that all swimmers must rigorously obey warning signs and safety guidelines at the beach (that’s not a Réunion sign above), while downplaying the fact that five people have been killed by sharks off Réunion’s shores since 2011. The beginning of this week’s statement noted that the victim, Sarah Roperth, was killed “close to a shore on a non-swimming beach.”

The tone, as idiotic as it is callous, echoed a similar sentiment by Réunion politician Jacqueline Farreyrol after the death of surfer Stéphane Berhamel, killed by a shark during his honeymoon in May. “We can only deplore the death of this young surfer and his fatal imprudence,” she said in a press release.

The message is clear: Come to Réunion, follow the rules, and you won’t get killed by a shark.

Since 2011, there have been 11 shark attacks in Réunion, but tourism hasn’t suffered. In 2011, the number of tourists on the island increased 12.1 percent. Alexandre Rassiga, a Réunion local, was killed by a shark in 2012 in one of the island’s most popular surfing spots. Mathieu Schiller, a French bodyboard champion who grew up in Réunion, was fatally attacked by two sharks in 2011.

In 2012, more than 78 shark attacks were reported around the world, eight of which were fatal.

After Roperth’s death there has been a spike in interest for Réunion real estate.

OFIM Immobilier, a company specializing in Indian Ocean properties, tweeted 23 listings for the island of Réunion between Monday and Wednesday. Previously, there were no listings for Réunion since July 12. One such property is listed for 125,000 euros.

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 5.18.27 PM

Got Saga, an international tourism website, tweeted photos and an article about Réunion on Tuesday. The article, written by the founder of Reunionnais.co.uk, detailed everything from the grandeur the mountains to the traditional dish called cari served on the island. Shark attacks, however, weren’t mentioned in the piece.

Reunion Tweet 02

Also, Réunion has sprung from 15 to 100 in peak search interest on Google Trends since the girl’s death. For the francophone version, Ile de la Réunion started at 72 before the attack, but also reached peak search interest. The francophone Facebook page for the IRT has more than 130,000 likes, a gain of more than 30,000 since Berhamel’s death.

The increase in attacks has officials calling for shark population control. Thierry Robert, a local Réunion lawmaker, urged immediate legislation that would allow fishing for bull sharks. The more animal-friendly members of the Réunion community oppose the measure, though the largest numbers of opposition come from outside the island.

Robert Calcagno, the director of L’Institut Océanographique in Monaco, told French media that turning the ocean into a threat-free swimming pool could result in even more menacing creatures making their home near the shores.

The island has recently been put on the UNESCO World Heritage List. According to the Connections Réunion travel agency, “This is the reason we’re getting more well-known around the world.” The number of tourists booking vacations in Réunion hasn’t changed since Monday, but the agency pegged that on July and August being already filled with family members visiting the island or regulars coming to their summer homes.

No further action to reduce the number of sharks near the island has been implemented in Réunion, but beware, because at the rate of the island’s tourism campaigns and travel fame, you might just be booking a flight there soon.

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