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book review

The Last Resort book jacket Author Sarah StodolaHandout

  • Title: The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach
  • Author: Sarah Stodola
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 352

“The sea is a form of ridicule,” Wallace Stevens wrote in his 1937 poem The Man with the Blue Guitar.

Sarah Stodola seizes on the sentiment in her new book The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach, an illuminating and troubling study of global seaside tourism.

The beach, Stodola writes, “plays host in our collective imagination to the highest form of leisure.” The author goes deep on what compels throngs of humanity to sandy destinations – and at what cost to the people who live in these delicate habitats year round. Copiously researched, featuring disquieting interviews with locals, oceanographers and coastal geologists, The Last Resort is a timely look at the social, economic and ecological tentacles of this industry, from St. Kitts to Hawaii to Senegal.

Stodola takes an anthropological blowtorch to the “sanitized bubbles” of beach tourism, where travelers consume synthetic versions of local culture and “leave their comfort zone at home only to ensconce themselves in another version of it at their destination.” Her worldview is often unsparing: she describes humans incapable of true leisure, “taking photos of their own legs, with the ocean beyond … wondering how much fun they are having.” She’s a killjoy, but she’s right.

Stodola begins with an engrossing tour of the history of beach culture. Before the 1700s, Europeans generally feared the ocean. The English upper classes launched the seaside resorting trend, suffering frigid plunges for their health. “Eighteenth century Gwyneth Paltrow would have been all over it,” Stodola writes of this early wellness industry, which saw people guzzling sea water, mixing it with milk and wine.

Eventually, beachgoers ditch Britain’s cold seaside for the hotter, more hedonistic climes of the French Riviera and Monaco, the first country to remake its fortunes with this new brand of tourism, Stodola notes. By the 1900s, beach getaways become a true cultural phenomenon: “In places like Waikiki, Acapulco, the Amalfi Coast, Atlantic City and Miami Beach, resorts represented a new way to experience leisure time,” she writes. Beach tourism fundamentally changes people’s ideas about the point of travel, from health and edification to escaping the “day-to-day drudgery at home.”

The author illustrates how shorelines come to offer economic hope to underdeveloped nations: a lengthy coastline is viewed as lucrative as an oil reserve, though the business is precarious. Nicaragua’s emerging industry crumbles amid political upheaval in the country in 2018, with many tens of thousands locals laid off and tourism revenues plummeting by 77 per cent last year.

One devastating chapter follows the cascading effects from a single beach resort on a tiny Fijian community. Polynesian chestnuts are cleared for grassy lawns and ubiquitous palm trees, an ecosystem of crabs and birds on which locals relied for food vanishes, as do their communal, self-sufficient ways.

More than anything, this “beach read” is a portrait of our hubris. Travelers equate the beach with paradise, but “paradise is not nature; paradise is nature conquered, nature tamed.” At luxury resorts, that means overdeveloped shorelines, eroded beaches, irreparable coral reef damage, native foliage dug up for golf courses, emissions spewed to ship familiar food and drink to remote locations. Sea levels – projected to rise by up to three feet by century’s end – are a recurring menace.

The author demonstrates that the harder we try to control nature, the harder it bucks. Take for example the issue of “beach health”: nature intends for sand to move, a pesky problem for resorts. As developers crowd shorelines with concrete high-rises, they interrupt the natural flow of sand, causing it to wash away. Stodola catalogues desperate attempts to keep beaches in place with seawalls, jetties and breakwaters, vegetated sand dunes and “beach nourishment,” which entails hauling in mountains of new sand.

“No resort is permanent, no matter how deeply it has embedded itself into the popular imagination,” writes Stodola, who journeys far and wide to extinct hotels, their entranceways crumbling and overgrown, tattered umbrellas abandoned in the sun.

From Miami Beach, the author offers a particularly dire warning. The barrier island – half of it manmade in the early 1900s – is drowning, with sea levels estimated to rise by up to 54 inches by 2060. Officials here have embarked on a $600-million flood mitigation project that includes a mindboggling plan to raise 60 per cent of the streets. New hotels might feature lobbies with extra tall ceilings so the ground floor can be raised during regular flooding. Such brainstorming makes Miami Beach “a laboratory for the rest of the world,” Stodola observes.

Though progress is still troublingly thin on the ground, The Last Resort ends on clear directions for a more “durable” beach tourism industry, in which coastlines are protected and local communities benefit.

Some governments are limiting beach tourism development, including at Fernando de Noronha, 21 lush islands off Brazil where visitors pay a daily environmental fee that goes toward conservation. More locales are de-emphasizing their beaches, pushing experiential and cultural tourism instead, focusing on local food and drink, decreasing shipping emissions. The few developers with any foresight are moving away from mega-hotels, constructing smaller housing further away from beaches, on hills or cliffs.

Despite the climate reckoning coming for beach tourism, Stodola’s gorgeous, closely observed writing might still move you to book a holiday. Miami Beach’s Art Deco district is “confectionery, with all the colours of nonseriousness and birthday parties.” On Tioman Island in Malaysia, the author watches “raindrops working the palm fronds like they’re piano keys.” At Thailand’s Railay Beach, she drinks with strangers, watches clouds of bats at sundown and takes night swims in bioluminescent waters. It’s a “saturnalia of new and amazing occurrences,” much like The Last Resort itself.

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