Every now and again a story appears in the Caribbean media about beach access.
Although many governments, developers and hotel owners in the region feel that this is no longer an issue, it remains contentious in the minds of many Caribbean citizens. The feeling is that despite regulations, access to beaches in nations from Jamaica to St Lucia has diminished over the years, and that the more recent acceptance of ever larger resort developments is resulting in traditional rights being further eroded.
Three recent examples indicate that the issue remains live.
The first relates to the Grenadine island of Canouan. There, earlier this year, activists refused to accept a solution proposed by the government and a marina-related development regarding beach access. Unusually, this involved the suggestion that local residents could only access the beach through the property by a golf cart or a bus. If given prior notice, the hotel said, they would transport local people between the entrance of the resort and the beach.
A second relates to the Dominican Republic. There in the last few weeks, two Senators have proposed a bill that would impose large financial penalties on companies and individuals that impede public access to beaches, coasts, rivers, lakes, and lagoons; a matter of concern in some parts of a country which still has miles of pristine undeveloped coast. In response, the National Hotel & Tourism Association (ASONAHORES) expressed concern, arguing that the proposed legislation contained measures that could affect the security and commercial operation of the industry and contradicted existing regulations. What it would prefer, ASONAHORES told the local media, would be the establishment of comprehensive national norms to regulate public access to beaches.
And a third example can be found in a lively series of exchanges on TripAdvisor between a visitor to Barbados, not staying in a beach-front property, who asks for advice on how he and his family might access the public part of a beach facing a leading hotel. The sometimes wry answers from residents about the impossibility of obtaining access through the hotel, its security, and a poorly signed footpath, speak volumes about their lasting resentment.
What becomes apparent about beach access is that it is about much more than legal access, or being able to take an early morning sea bath, or fisher-folk’s traditional sites. While it is now almost universally accepted that hotels bring employment and growth, there remains a lingering sense that rights are being taken away and given to foreigners and visitors.
A number of recent academic papers, in part produced in relation to the variable and often dated legislation that exists across the region, make clear the common themes.
For residents, their concerns centre on tourism’s compatibility with daily life, the feeling that too much land is being given to foreigners, the impact that beachfront and tourism development is having on real estate prices for local people, and damage to the environment. The academics also cite the behaviour of cruise ship companies bussing visitors to public beaches, annoyance that all beach traders are considered to be associated with crime, and concern about restricted views to the sea.
The responses also seem to indicate that somewhere, deep down, there is a folk memory and a sense of popular local ownership of a country’s beaches, and that their alienation from common use results in a lasting disentitlement and resentment.
In contrast, hoteliers’ and developers’ concerns are focussed on reputation, guest safety and a property’s security when the foreshore is a public space. The problem for them is that while residents only want to use the beach for enjoyment, some individuals see it as a point of access to visitors, to sell or suggest to them almost anything. They also point, for example, to the dangers posed by unlicensed jet ski operators who across the region have been responsible for a number of serious accidents.
Unfortunately, there are often no clear answers, leaving it very much up to governments, hoteliers, developers, local communities and interest groups to try to find practical ways to resolve beach access issues through dialogue.