Picture yourself at a luxurious beach resort: toes buried in soft sand, frosty umbrella drink by your side, with visions of that evening’s limitless dinner dancing in your head. You’re there to get away from it all (and pig out because dammit it’s all-inclusive and you paid for that cheesecake) and surely don’t for a second consider how the $9 trillion tourism industry came to be. But Sarah Stodola does and her new book The Last Resort captures just that. She’s traveled the world, from Ibiza to Indonesia, Miami to Malaysia, talking to anyone who’d give her the time of day at more than two dozen resorts about their experiences as a guest, investor, worker, neighbor. For all the good that stems from job creation and the burgeoning global middle class, there is inarguable harm caused by overdevelopment, groundwater depletion, and illegal sand mining. Breaking news: it’s not sustainable.
The book reads like a 315-page John Oliver report (think: infotainment), with history, analysis, and recommended solutions neatly bound. Fun fact: the first known beach resort dates to the mid-18th century which opened as a wellness center on the British seaside. Fearful of the ocean, travelers tolerated it and “drank seawater mixed with wine, seawater mixed with milk” in search of alleged cures prescribed by profiteering doctors (and here Stodola takes a welcome broadside shot at Gwyneth Paltrow). The French had different ideas for the Riviera, namely gambling, making vacation an “unadulterated diversion” and soon thereafter “the age of the glamorous, hedonistic beach resort was upon us.” Over the past century, travel grew into the world’s third largest export (behind chemicals and fuels yet greater than automotive products and even food), and long, picturesque stretches of coastline could shape a nation’s economy. We learn of the seven stages of development – in short, a fresh & exciting opportunity is born, takes root, and invests back into the community but then goes corporate, stagnates, and declines – and the unfortunate reality known as leakage, whereby would-be profits are drained by foreign owners who take a cut of top-line revenue. The irony is that countries that once diversified away from commodity production (e.g. sugar) are now often over-reliant (in the era of COVID and climate chaos) on the once no-brainer pivot: travel.
In the penultimate chapter, we find more than a dozen recommended fixes. As with the greater topic of addressing climate change, nearly every idea is for the operators and municipalities themselves. Yes, we consumers can pick closer islands to which we’ll travel, reducing our individual carbon footprint, and while there should willingly pay environmental fees, but she argues it’s the giants that must address myriad challenges. Builders have to innovate more sensible & flexible blueprints; landscape designers should nix palm tree plantings and golf course development to preserve water tables; governments must “redirect existing tourism revenues toward waste treatment, careful infrastructure maintenance, and conservation efforts”; and heretical as it may sound, resorts should deemphasize vulnerable shorelines by promoting more inland destinations. So it’s complicated and for the good of society sacrifice is required, especially by those who’ve to date benefitted most. Picture the fat cat hotelier at the dinner trough, back for thirds of the lamp-warmed Salisbury steak. Ease up, pal – haven’t you had enough already?
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