Is Life Really a Beach? If so, our beaches may be dying
The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach
Sarah Stodola 2022
"If there’s heaven for me, I’m sure it has a beach attached to it."
~ Jimmy Buffett
"The presumed universal appeal of beaches has been mirrored back to us by the media, leaving little room for serious consideration of the major global industry that has bred economic and social inequalities in many a locale, as well as contributed to the climate crisis while coming under existential threat from it- a paradise both threatening and threatened."
Life's a beach. That concept has been drilled into my head since I first set foot on one. Being from the Midwest, I rarely make it to the beach, but for many years I've envied people who could laze around a beach resort and live the lifestyle that we're all supposed to aspire to. But like everything that seems to be too good to be true, beach resorts have a dark side. Rarely do we get to see that dark side, but it's on full display in this book- The Last Resort.
Sarah Stodola is a travel writer and editor from New York who has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New Yorker and this is her second book. It's easy to get a little jealous of a privileged white woman who has trotted across the globe checking out its most famous and exclusive beaches. Stodola obviously likes beach culture and lifestyles, but maybe that makes her the perfect person to try and take them down.
One thing that I had not realized before reading this book is that beach resorts are a relatively new invention. Up until the late 19th century, beaches were ignored, feared and avoided because of the natural disasters and dangers that were present back then. That all changed with the European development of beach hotels and resorts on the sunny shores of France, Greece, and Italy. The wealthy of that age used the Gatsby-esque atmosphere of these decadent resorts to flaunt their riches and escape the cold winters of their native cities. Things have only gotten worse as beach culture has exploded in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the wealthiest 1% leading the way.
Beach vacations are now something to brag about, one of the ultimate status symbols, and the middle class has rapidly caught on. Middle class families that can afford it have flocked to the beaches as well, causing congestion and over-crowding that threatens the peaceful laid-back atmosphere of the "paradise" that we all seem to want to get away to. Stodola points out that while the American middle class is mostly stagnating, the Asian middle class- especially that of India and China, is exploding, with the travel industry increasingly catering to those new customers.
The book discusses a well-established development cycle that can be seen by most resort areas, and the author travels to examples of most of them. First is the Exploration stage, where the most adventurous travelers seek out remote beaches with few amenities and start spreading the word. Then comes the Involvement stage, when repeat customers entice the local population to begin to offer services like lodging and food. The real break comes with the Development stage, when large outside companies build larger hotels and take over most of the functions that the locals had been providing. That is followed by the Consolidation stage, when a resort area hits its peak, and tourism becomes the main driver of the area economy. Inevitably that is followed by the Stagnation and Decline stages, when over-development, overcrowding, and environmental degradation causes beach areas to lose their popularity as tourists find newer and shinier places to visit. She visited Senegal, which is still in the early stages of the cycle, Indonesia's Bali, that's at the peak, and Acapulco, that's heading downward thanks to concerns about violence there.
Most of the book is here travelogue of the many countries and beaches that she visited, and how they fall along the development timeline. Some areas have been smart about developing, and some have been reckless, but money talks, and the enormous wealth that has accumulated over the decades in the richest countries has turned the most idyllic locales like Hawaii, Fiji, and the Caribbean into tourist traps where economies revolve around well-heeled foreigners spending their money and pretending to care about local customs.
The biggest cloud hanging over most of these resorts is climate change, and the rising ocean levels that threaten to wipe them out. Ocean levels are currently rising, with an expected 1 foot rise by 2050 and perhaps 3 feet by the end of the century. This rise will radically transform beach fronts, eroding most of the sandy beaches as we know them and flooding streets. Seawalls that are put in to protect high rises cause problems after solving others. Many resort areas are already having to resort to transporting in new sand from other locations to restore beaches, but that will only get harder to do as sea levels rise. Stodola devotes one whole chapter to Miami Beach, as thin sand island at the forefront of climate change. While the state's governor refuses to acknowledge climate change, the leaders of Miami Beach are rapidly trying to adapt by raising roads and replenishing beaches as flooding is becoming more and more common there. (Watch the fascinating you tube video below)
Resort development, like most other development, has been done with little concern for the local environment. Golf courses use enormous amounts of water and are out of place in seaside areas. Palm trees (most of which are imported) are inefficient at stabilizing sandy areas, and their shallow roots allow them to be knocked over with ease. Mangrove trees, that thrive in shoreline wetlands, have been removed and the wetlands filled in, with the stability that they offered gone. Offshore coral reefs are dying due to higher water temperatures, leaving beaches unprotected and wiping out diverse ecosystems.
Stodola finished the book with a list of well-informed recommendations, few of which have much hope of happening, but all of which make sense. They include:
- Discourage long airplane flights to remote areas. The carbon footprint from these flights is enormous, as is the footprint from importing everything needed to build resorts in remote areas.
- Source resorts locally. Most high-end resorts get wine, seafood, and produce from all over the world and have it shipped in for the convenience of their guests. More of what a resort consumes should be from local sources to minimize carbon and maximize the local economy.
- Stop building high-rises right next to the beach. Concrete and sand don't mix. Build further away to preserve beach health and minimize climate change flooding.
- Be more inviting to locals. To make their property more exclusive, local residents are discouraged from frequenting the same bars, restaurants and beaches as resort guests. They are only used as employees, and told to be polite and take care of the guests, no matter how rude or entitled they might be. Resorts should be more inclusive and integrated with the local population to
- Make hotels have skin in the game. In many areas, the local governments take on the huge responsibility of taking care of the ever-changing beaches. Resorts benefit from their work, sending many of the profits out of the country to corporate shareholders. If the beach is your main draw, you should have to pay to keep it up.
- Limit tourist numbers. A few countries are trying this, and it works to prevent overuse and over-development. Capitalism's guiding principle of more is always better flies in the face of this, but a balance between recreation and environment is what has been missing from many of these resorts as they proceed through the development cycle.
One night in a luxury resort can run anywhere from $500-$1,000. Add in expensive meals, long flights, and side trips, and most of these resorts can cost $20,000 or more for a week's stay, well out of reach of all but the wealthiest. These resorts promise paradise, but it is all an illusion. The locals know better. Mind you, beaches can be very relaxing and enjoyable places. I think everybody should have the chance to enjoy one, as long as it doesn't break their budget and destroy the beach.
There's something even more powerful about beaches, and that's the idea of what water does to our spirit. Water has the power to relax us and spiritually renew us, and I highly recommend a book called Blue Mind, which I reviewed here, if you really want to get the benefits of a beach without going to one. Rivers, lakes, and fountains can provide many of the same benefits.
If you want to feel better about not blowing $20K on a beach vacation, this is a good book to read. It made me appreciate my Midwestern environs more and not envy rich vacationers near as much.