Beware the Luxury Beach Resort

I hate the beach. My skin burns and blisters as soon as the sun touches it, I dislike sweating without exercising, and sand makes no sense at all to me—it’s just hot and gritty dirt that other people apparently enjoy rolling around in. I was raised by parents whose idea of leisure is cutting miles of trails in the woods and painting an entire house by hand, so the prospect of enforced idleness makes me panicky. Plus, the ocean itself, while aesthetically pleasing, is terrifyingly untrustworthy, with its riptides and hurricanes and tsunamis and sharks and microplastics and slithering monsters of the deep. It has just too many sneaky ways to kill you.

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When I have gone on beach vacations, it’s been under duress. I married into a family of generous people who are also horrifying extroverts, and whose notion of a good time is a nice, boozy, mostly reclined stay on some tropical island together. But for catastrophists like me, the luxury beach resort raises a whole new set of psychological torments on top of those provided by more ordinary beaches. The entire time that we’re in our ostensible paradise, I’m busy obsessing over the unintended consequences of our stay, such as the environmental degradation caused by bringing wasteful tourists to delicate ecosystems and the racist and classist issues of displacement. The Situationists, as usual, said it best in Paris in the spring of 1968, when, in protest of capitalism, they scrawled graffiti reading CLUB MED: A CHEAP HOLIDAY IN OTHER PEOPLE’S MISERY.

I’ve gleefully stored away this factoid about the Situationists, along with many others that come from Sarah Stodola’s new book, The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach, a sharp and exhaustive examination of the history and pitfalls of luxury beach resorts all over the world. Stodola tells us that “the world’s first known seaside resort” was Baiae, near Naples, where Romans from the first to fourth centuries created an opulent and wild party town that the philosopher Seneca called “a hostelry of vices.” There, Stodola goes scuba diving to explore the submerged half of the ancient city, with its intricately decorated geothermal baths and saunas and a nymphaeum, which she describes as “a sanctuary room dedicated to water.” During its heyday, Baiae was a debauched playground for emperors; it was, in fact, where the emperor Nero tried to murder his own mother, Agrippina, by putting her on a boat designed to self-destruct beneath her as it floated off. When she survived by swimming away, he had one of his henchmen finish the botched job later that night.

For a long time after the Romans, the concept of the luxury beach resort disappeared, resurfacing in altered form when the English upper classes, grown weary of their inland spas, began to be seduced by the curative properties of cold ocean water. In 1753 a doctor named Richard Russell moved to the old Saxon town of Brighton, on the south coast of England, and built a guesthouse for himself and his patients, setting off a little craze that spread across the channel to places like Trouville and Cabourg (which Marcel Proust reinvented in his fiction as Balbec). But these attempts at the beach resort were somewhat unpleasant and chilly. They offered very little luxury and relaxation, and encouraged drinking a great deal of seawater to purge bodily ills and leaping frequently into the frigid waves from horse-drawn bathing machines.

A more decadent understanding of seaside entertainment caught on in the mid-19th century, when the tiny principality of Monaco was nearly bankrupt, and Princess Caroline, the enterprising wife of the hapless Prince Florestan, of the ruling Grimaldi clan, had an idea. Amid rumors that gambling might soon be outlawed in the landlocked spa towns of Germany (as it had been for years elsewhere in Europe), she persuaded her husband to legalize it, and they hurriedly built a casino in Monte Carlo. Meanwhile, they took a different cue from the French Riviera, which for a time had been attracting the rich with the promise that the warm and salubrious Mediterranean airs would cure such ailments as “consumption, weak nerves, obstructed perspiration, languid circulation, scurvy, chest pain, general weakness, faintness, low spirits, fever, and loss of appetite.” Though the cover was health, vice was the true draw, no longer just a sport of the idle rich, but an aspirational avocation for ambitious men of the middle class. Monaco was soon thriving, and a new age of hedonism at the seashore had begun.

In the United States, summer resorts had been thickly established along the coasts of the Northeast since the early 19th century; Long Branch, New Jersey, was even touted as the “American Monte Carlo.” But the beach resort in its most romantic form—seared into the public consciousness as a tropical wonderland of sea and surf and fruit and floral shirts—truly began in Hawaii, not long after a bunch of greedy American businessmen effected a coup d’état that removed the Hawaiian monarchy and claimed the archipelago for the United States in 1898. The deposed Queen Lili’uokalani lived by a breeze-swept bay called Waikiki, on the island of Oahu, where one of the first major resorts was built, the Moana.

Later, in 1927, a fever dream of a resort hotel opened, the Royal Hawaiian, a great pink hulk that ushered in the beach glamour and exoticism that we associate with luxury resorts today (where Joan Didion once fled, as she wrote in an essay, “in lieu of filing for divorce”). What was good for the economy of the gorgeous locale, however, was bad for its ecology—a trade-off that, though glaring, not surprisingly went ignored. The new buildings of Waikiki were constructed so close to the shore that they impeded the natural flow of sand, and the once-abundant beaches washed away. A tourist now sees sand that is replenished by machines and held in place by man-made barriers that stop its natural movement, which serves only to erode beaches farther down the current.

Stodola is, like me, skeptical about the beach idyll, constantly seeing the darker forces of environmental and cultural degradation amid all the luxury she describes. She is at her most incisive when she calmly, clearly lists what is lost when beach resorts take over a place. For instance, she describes the Fijian village of Vatuolalai, where two clans used to live as equals, one owning the beach where they fished, the other the acres inland where they grew crops such as taro, coexisting according to solesolevaki, which means that “everyone in a community is obliged to work together toward common ends.” Then, in the 1970s, the resort developers crept in, renting the land from the beach owners, who now had the funds to buy nontraditional foods and goods. The Polynesian chestnut trees were ripped out and non-native coconut palms put in. Fiddler crabs and the golden plovers that ate them disappeared; turtle-nesting on the beach became rare. Silt built up in the local river and blocked the trevally fish from swimming and spawning there, and the coral reefs were damaged first by river silt flowing into the bay and then by the fertilizer runoff from the golf course, as well as by the sunblock that washes off tourist bodies.

Diminished coral reefs meant far fewer fish. Faced with scarcity, Vatuolalai’s inhabitants started working for themselves, not for the collective good. Ninety-two percent of them became involved in tourism. The knowledge of how to make oil and traps and mats was lost, as were traditional dances, supplanted by those from other nations in the Pacific, which young people performed for tourists. The provisions that since time immemorial had been saved up in case of emergency were no longer there for the villagers. When Cyclone Kina hit in 1993, the residents had to rely on the government to survive, instead of on their own stores. Diabetes became endemic, the result of a new diet of processed foods. Stodola watches happy families from Australia in the resort’s pools, the adults bellied up to the bars set into the water, and feels certain that none of them sees any of the trade-offs that went into making the resort they’re enjoying.

Stodola’s careful critique of the invasive species that is the luxury resort helped clarify my beach-hater’s reflexive outrage. And yet, as she piled on her profiles of resorts all over the world—and Tulum blended into Sumba, which blended into Barbados, which blended into Bali, which blended into Acapulco, their high-priced cocktails and corrosive effects becoming a repetitive blur—I felt dizzy and exhausted. Luxury can swiftly glut. I also felt morally queasy about her pursuit. Her travels officially counted as research, I understood. But I began to wonder how someone so perceptive, intelligent, and ethical could so studiously anatomize the pervasive harm wreaked by these places, and yet take long-haul flights around the globe to spend time at many (many!) more of them than nailing her argument required. She recognizes the ways in which she is complicit—she makes that clear in The Last Resort—and still she kept choosing to be complicit.

Is it enough of an excuse that Stodola overindulged in luxury with the aim of writing this book? I’m not sure. I recognize that part of her point is to convey the mad hedonism of the resort world. Still, I felt better on arriving at her penultimate chapter, in which she brings the purpose of the book back into focus by suggesting ways to rethink the luxury resort. Stodola gathers a slate of proposals from environmentally minded people she meets during her travels, and does her best to stick to the practical, mostly avoiding the sweepingly wishful.

Among the items on her list are regrowing mangroves to protect coastlines from erosion and high winds; getting resorts to discourage long-haul flights by offering discounts to visitors who avoid them, thus nudging people toward more regional travel; serving local cuisine and drink instead of wastefully importing goods from afar; making resorts responsible for maintaining their beaches (which, in one case that especially inspires her, involves a machine that turns discarded beer bottles into sand); building more wisely and limiting tourist numbers; and saving the coral reefs that ensure the health of the resorts’ waters. High-end ecotouristic enterprises already make sustainability part of their enlightened allure—at a price, of course—but Stodola optimistically imagines the spreading appeal of basking not just in the sun but in conscientious stewardship, even as sea levels inexorably rise.

I am glad that The Last Resort exists, because it gives me ammunition to shoot down the next island-vacation proposal. (Let’s do a family hike! Better yet, a staycation where we all read books in separate rooms!) At the same time, I am afraid that I am the book’s custom-built audience, given my wariness of beaches. The people who might most benefit from this book—those who have bought into the myth of paradise with an ocean view, deleterious impact be damned, and have the means to regularly experience a version of it—don’t want their illusions destroyed. If they were to receive The Last Resort as, say, a (passive-aggressive) birthday gift, they might well immediately fling it into the giveaway bin.

I don’t say this to condemn those who hesitate to listen to the climate Cassandras among us, or who at any rate fail to act on warnings to desist from this or that treasured activity. I also choose to ignore many inconvenient truths, and the sacrifices that they should inspire but that would dampen my own pleasure in living: Forswearing fancy beach resorts just happens to be no skin off my sun-blistered back. If I can’t help feeling that Stodola tries to have it both ways, which I read as a kind of hypocrisy, the reason I find it hard to swallow is that I so often do the same.

Or, rather, we all share in the hypocrisy, save for those few Earth angels who live off the grid and use no plastics. If we all paid attention to what is happening to the planet in the Anthropocene, we’d be running around with our heads on fire. Instead, we churn on in our lives, ordering stuff for next-day delivery when we could shop locally, driving to the grocery store only half a mile away instead of biking, and flipping the radio dial when another instance of extreme weather strikes, because we just can’t bear what another fire or hurricane portends. All the while, we’re nagged by conscience, which slowly drags our spirits down. Perhaps we need a nice beach vacation to recover! And so we go on, with our tidal cycles of unbearable guilt and panicked complicity, in and out, just like the ocean, where we sit and watch the sunset in our near-nakedness, drinking mai tais, in order to forget all the ways we are failing the Earth, in our vicious circularity, in our infinite regress.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “Beach Bummer.”

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