Who Owns the Seaside? On the Rise of Planet Beach
Robert C. Ritchie Traces the History of Private Beachfront, Public Access, and the Tides of Tourism
Almost everyone who has spent time at the beach has felt these two emotions: one of languor and the other of shock. They are both responses to the beach that are familiar and desired. They are individual but universal to all beach lovers, and there are many of us. What started out as a modest number of individuals seeking therapeutic relief in the ocean who found it in a small fishing village or on an empty beach has morphed into a staggering phenomenon. One aspect of this is the number of people who now live close to the beach. People have always lived close to the ocean, but now they do so in much greater agglomerations.
In 2010, it was estimated that 44 percent of the world’s population lived within 150 kilometers of the sea. By now the figure may be 50 percent. For the United States, the estimate is that 52 percent of the population lives in a county adjacent to the ocean. Living near the coast and having access to beaches is now a situation highly sought after. The ability to decide in the morning that a day at the beach would be nice and then speeding along the highway to reach the seashore is now a common experience. This pushes real estate prices of beach property ever higher. Mass tourism swells these figures every summer.
In 2015, 1.2 billion tourists were on the move. Not all of them went to the seaside, but many of them did. California beaches attracted more visitors than all of the national parks combined, and in 2015 New York City beaches drew a record 22.8 million visitors. All kinds of media now report on beaches, with glossy pictures of exotic resorts in tropical settings and the inevitable gorgeous model or happy family. There are any number of top ten, or even top one hundred, beach lists to choose from. So what started as a few hotels and villas has now burgeoned into a modern prodigy.
With the increasing number of visitors, serious issues have arisen to confront resorts. Numbers alone immediately raise the issue of access. While the right to be on the beach is common, getting to the shore over private property can be difficult and occasionally impossible. Greater numbers have brought pollution, bad enough that at times it is a serious threat to health. Finally, the expectation of glistening white sand, or just some sand, when the visitor arrives at the beach means that it had better be there. This has created very real problems of sand replenishment as beaches are scoured by high tides and storms. These are all modern issues at the seaside.
In a fascinating turn of events, there is a contemporary and growing literature regarding the positive benefits of visits to the beach. Two hundred years after the publication of Sir John Floyer’s work on seawater and its therapeutic value, Blue Health, a major multicampus research program, is now producing research that provides insight into the health advantages of the beach. “We find people who visit the coast, for example, at least twice weekly tend to experience better general and mental health.” The coastal visitors benefit from less polluted air and more sunlight, they tend to be more physically active, and it is clear that water has a psychological restorative effect. Blue Health and other groups of researchers are measuring the physical and mental advantages to seawater. They especially stress the positive mental benefits accruing to those who dip in the sea. This comes, not from the speculations 18th-century science, but from modern medical and social science research, although it would certainly make the 18th-century physicians happy.
The resulting explosion of beach resorts has been international in scope. Even China, as it has created great wealth and a new middle class, has succumbed to the lure of the sea. For a long time the Communist Party leadership summered at Beidaihe, making it a famous and mysterious beach because their meetings were secret. Everyone else was condemned to appropriate proletarian rectitude and constant hard work. How the Puritans would have approved! Now the burgeoning middle class seeks out many newly developed resorts. Nowhere is that more visible than on the island of Hainan. Long touted as a possible rival to Hong Kong as a trading and banking center, that dream disappeared and in its place has come a remarkable tourist boom that finds the fanciest hotel chains all now claiming beaches—most of them around the town of Sanya. The great attraction is the weather, as Hainan is a tropical island that shimmers in the sun when northern China is in the deep freeze. Party leaders and retirees from the north flood in from December to March. The retirees represent an old tradition in a new area, namely that of “snowbirds” who flee the cold to enjoy the sun.
During the summer, millions of ordinary folk descend to enjoy the beaches. They are another indicator of the growing prosperity of China. As befits its status as a vacation hot spot, the island now has surfing competitions, sixteen golf courses, and that necessary aspect of proper resorts, a festival, built around the Miss World competition. As prosperity and international tourism have come to tropical Asia, resorts have proliferated, as they have the world over.
The pressures to develop new resorts leave few places untouched. Developers constantly seek new opportunities in order to feed the growing demand for shoreline holidays. That could be Phuket in Thailand or, more prosaically, the “Redneck Riviera,” long a celebrated workers’ beach on the Alabama-Florida Panhandle. For decades it was the boisterous playground of workers from the Deep South with hard drinking and hard playing in a series of small settlements along a lovely stretch of beach on barrier islands. It was a place where you could do things you would never want to admit to when you went home and returned to your church. The beaches were kept for whites only, and government interference in their affairs was avoided. These beaches welcomed spring break, which helped local bars and motels. Slowly but surely, the tide turned as chardonnay drinkers, in the form of winter visitors, replaced the beer swillers. Property values went up, as did taxes to pay for hospitals, roads, sanitation, sewers, and police and fire fighters. The old-timers even fought beach nourishment after hurricanes destroyed the beaches, if that meant that the government would be involved subsequently, because the law permitted the government to mandate beach use policy. For them it was better to move down the road a bit than to have their actions regulated by the federal government.
Now a long line of hotels and other buildings hug the beaches, as the developers have taken possession of the best sites and pushed out the “rednecks.” They had a long run, but great beaches and rising property values killed the “good old days” and ushered in the modern era. Here as elsewhere, developers sought out great, or even good, beaches in order to provide for the constant demand for seaside holidays.
In the 20th century, towns close to the shore experienced growth, as these were pleasant communities offering views and services not common elsewhere. As the resorts grew, the number of people employed in the towns also surged. Then there were the commuters who moved out from the inner cities, and even the suburbs, to live close to cities such as New York or London where they could commute from a town on the shore. One of the results was the creation of a new kind of neighborhood. Beach communities are towns on the shore that are not resorts. They may well have a beach, but they do not have hotels and might only have a motel or two. They are communities that prefer their privacy.
As a result, unlike resorts, they do not advertise their beaches. Tourists and trippers are not welcome at many of these communities, while others are willing to have people visit but do not provide much in the way of parking. While they might not publicize their beach, these towns cannot ignore the beach, as it is part of their attraction. That means they have to manage the beach, which can be expensive, especially so when they might have to replace the sand after a major storm. This can lead to community fights as they seek to keep sand on the beach while somehow not taxing in order to pay for it. The beach can be an attraction and a burden that most communities never had to bother with in the past.
With greater numbers living close to the shore and with many in the interior desirous of holidaying there, access to the beach comes to be seen by many as a right. The Surfrider Foundation, for instance, regards free access as a fundamental right. Those who live on the beach, however, want their scenic views and lifestyle untrammeled by trippers. It is an old argument that goes back to the advent of the railroad and greater numbers of trippers coming to spoil the weekends of the locals. The two sides are engaged in a struggle to protect “rights,” or to achieve them. There are many variations in the argument, driven by the fact that some of the most valuable property in the world is beachfront property.
Most nations have adopted a “public trust” doctrine whereby the state has sovereignty over beaches and rivers and thus sets the law. This generally means that there is free public access below the mean high tide line. This has become commonly accepted. A different definition is rare. In a few states in America, for instance, the rule is the mean low tide line. The issue becomes, can those who own property above this line in the sand deny access to those who want to exercise their right to play in the sand and go into the water?
There are various answers to this question. In Spain, private beaches are illegal and access is guaranteed, but there are limits. When naturists sued the city of Cadiz for access, as the city was arresting and fining them when they appeared on the beach nude, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that they had no right to access as their practice was not acceptable to the majority of those on the beach. Thus, the city could continue to fine those who appeared nude. Besides, as there are recognized nude beaches in Spain, the naturists did have places to go. In Italy, as is true in many countries, such as France, there are mixed rules of access. Private beaches are allowed and are almost always controlled by a hotel or a club. They are easily recognized due to the rows of umbrellas and lounges that mark their part of the beach. Public beaches tend to be more chaotic. On Lido Island in Venice there has been a notable struggle for access as the hotels and private homes aggressively mark out their parts of the beach by running fences down into the water. Visitors have to find access at a few points and use a small portion of the beach.
A few years ago, Giorgio Orsoni, a new socialist mayor, took this to be an affront and decided that all Venetians should have free access to the water and that the fences and signs could be ignored. This had an impact for a while until the mayor was caught in a corruption scandal and old practices began to creep back. Not all stories have a happy ending. The townspeople of Newhaven in England were confronted with losing their access to the town’s favorite beach. The authorities of Newhaven Port, a French-owned company, decided to close off access to the beach. The towns fought back, even at one point declaring that the beach was a “village green.” But after a seven-year legal struggle the courts sided with the company, ruling that it had the right to control its own property. So the beach became private.
In New Zealand, access is not guaranteed. Queen Victoria, as early as 1840, urged the first British governor of the new colony to ensure that the public had the right to access. In general, the “public interest” doctrine prevailed thereafter, but in recent years the indigenous Maoris have moved to have their treaty rights recognized and have entered politics and the courts. As recently as 2011, the Marine and Coastal Area Act recognized that the Maori may have exclusive customary interests in areas of the foreshore where they have traditionally conducted ceremonies or fished. They now have to go to court or negotiate directly with each local government to establish their rights, and one factor that has to be taken into consideration in making a judgement is public access.
In the United States, the most common rule is free public access below the mean high tide line. The issue then becomes whether or not property owners above the line keep people out. In Texas, Oregon, and Hawaii there is guaranteed free public access. Most states want public access except for a few, such as Massachusetts and Virginia, where private ownership controls almost all of the foreshore. However clear it is that access is guaranteed below the mean high tide line, the question of access has led to epic battles.
Excerpted from The Lure of the Beach by Robert C. Ritchie. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, UC Press. Copyright © 2021 by Robert C. Ritchie.