Friday, November 24, 2023

Beach and resort culture have a fascinating history

I’ve been reading The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach. The author, Sarah Stodola, after years as a travel journalist spouting endless positivity at beach resorts, wanted to take a more critical look, to try to determine where resorts and their industry are headed in light of things like climate change and the increase in natural disasters. 

I was probably influenced to read this based on my love of the TV show The White Lotus (she references it right away), which combined the long-held tourist Bob Marley/Jimmy Buffett perspective with the behind-the-scenes dark side of the lives of resort employees.

She concludes that paradise for humans is nature conquered, not actual nature. An infinity pool overlooking the ocean is much better than contending with the sand and waves and unknowns underneath in the sea.

Stodola looks back to the history of human infatuation with the coast. 

  • In the 1500s, the British upper class would retreat to spa towns with a focus on the healing power of water. In 1660, a doctor there founded a mineral spring spa which just happened to be near the ocean, so he got the idea to begin marketing the health benefits of ocean water, a resource he had in great supply. By 1736, entire towns were starting to understand the game. Brighthelmstone changed its name to Brighton, easier to pronounce and seemingly sounding like a coastal town worth a visit. “The resort concept took hold.”
  • In northern Africa, southern Europe, and Polynesia, people have been surfing since the 1700s, maybe even before in some places.
  • Although “paradise” used to be an Iranian word referring to walled gardens, “paradise’s relocation to the shore is a twentieth-century phenomenon.”
  • Monte Carlo used to be called Vininaia and changed its name to encourage people to visit, which they did, and the city in Morocco became one of the first major resorting destinations. At first the beach was the thing there, but the realization over time has been to get rid of that and build a marina for the exorbitant yachts and create massive homes all the way up the mountains overlooking the water.
  • The Jersey Shore became big time throughout the 1800s for people in New York and Philadelphia wanting to escape the summer heat. Their reasons for visiting rapidly changed from caring for their health to more along the lines of entertainment. It became known as the “American Monte Carlo” and still today has a pretty good claim to being America’s first beach resort.
  • With his follow up to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald helped “immortalize the international beach culture” with his book Tender is the Night. Between him and Picasso, their depictions of tanned skin and “getting sun became something you have the leisure to do instead of something that happens to you while you’re out toiling in the fields.”
  • Mark Twain, while working for a Sacramento newspaper, got to be one of the lucky few to steamboat to the Sandwich Islands in the mid-1800s. He loved it and spread the word that what we now know as Waikiki in Hawaii would soon become a hot destination. Hawaii would become a U.S. state in 1900 and, ironically, Waikiki never actually had much of a beach. It was constructed and even today still shows stretches that look more like an industrial port than a world-class resort strip. But sea-level rise is occurring there more rapidly than most places on Earth, and pretty much all experts agree that Waikiki will not exist anywhere close to what it looks like today in a mere 100 years.
  • Waikiki was largely able to enter the pop-culture psyche because silent-film superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (and much later the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin) vacationed there. Then, after World War II, a strong economy and the advent of paid vacations for the white-collar working masses allowed for more creativity and leeway in their vacation ambitions, even at a time before air travel became affordable.
  • I love this quote from the author on the eternal struggle for the beach resort or really any coastal development: “The issue is not that the sand is moving - that’s what nature intended, in fact - but that we insist it stay in one place.”
  • Hawaii, taking this insight into account, can be credited with taking some of the most action on climate change in the world - a low bar, but still. It became the first U.S. state to create a law to follow the Paris Climate Agreement and, in 2021, banned the sale of sunscreen to protect coral reefs from bleaching.
  • Much of the beach resort culture now seen throughout the world originated in Hawaii, including beach umbrellas in cocktails, colorful shirts, and surfboards. Actions started in Korolevu and Denarau in Fiji that have taken hold most other places include the layout of individual bungalows extended longways down the beachfront, with bamboo walls and thatched roofs, and also the idea (paid for by massive Japanese investment) of moving tons of dirt from a nearby mountain to the coastline and to fill in mangrove swamps to raise the elevation of the island.

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