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'The Last Resort' unveils the destructive reality of beachside destinations

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

What comes to mind when you hear the word paradise? Chances are you're thinking of the beach - the pleasant sound of waves crashing into the sand, the sun toasting your skin as you relax with a book in one hand and a pina colada in the other. Beach resorts have become some of our favorite travel destinations. But behind their exquisite ocean views, massive pools and indulging on all-inclusive deals hide a darker reality. Sarah Stodola's new book is "The Last Resort: A Chronicle Of Paradise, Profit, And Peril At The Beach." And she joins us now. Welcome.

SARAH STODOLA: Thank you for having me.

NADWORNY: So, Sarah - beach vacations - they're actually a relatively new concept, right? Like, what's the history there?

STODOLA: You know, up until kind of the 1700s, people were generally terrified of the beach and the ocean - wanted nothing to do with it. And then in the 1700s in England, the seaside resort emerged not as a place for leisure and fun but as a place to go to improve one's health. Doctors were touting the supposed health benefits of sea air and sea water, including even, like, seawater. So...

NADWORNY: Wow, we've evolved from that moment.

STODOLA: Yes, we have. We have. So the kind of start as the way we understand them today kind of came with the opening in Monaco of the Monte Carlo Casino. And it was the first time that kind of fun and decadence were prioritized over those health benefits.

NADWORNY: So the rise of beach travel and these kind of new resorts - it's come at a cost. I mean, that's a big theme in your book - is the toll that beach resorts take on the environment. What did you find while researching the book?

STODOLA: Yeah, I mean, even before climate change became the crisis that we know it today, the way that beach resorts were being built, you know, even in the early 20th century, tended to do a lot of damage just locally, ecologically to their shorelines. So, I mean, for example, in Hawaii, they were replenishing the sand that had washed away as early as the 1930s and building groins out into the ocean to try to stop the beach disappearing. So it's always been a little bit of a challenge that is obviously getting more intense.

NADWORNY: There's a chapter about Fiji that I found pretty stunning, especially the part about the Naviti Resort and the village next door to it.

STODOLA: So that is a really interesting case study because the interesting thing about Fiji is that they have really strong land ownership rights for the Native population there. So that resort goes back to the early '70s. The village of Vatu-o-lailai had this beachfront property, and a resort came in and rented the land from them to open this resort. And there's clear increases in their standard of living. You know, they have access to health care. They have access to education. They have, you know, indoor plumbing. They have all of these kind of conveniences that they didn't have before. But all that has come at the cost of them losing a lot of their culture. They've, you know, lost a lot of their autonomy.

NADWORNY: What did they lose? Could you give us some examples?

STODOLA: Yeah, so they - you know, in their culture, they have what they call totem animals and totem plants. And it was a very big part of their culture. And almost all of those plants and animals disappeared from the land with the opening of the resort. One other, like, striking example that comes to mind is that their, you know, kind of traditional dance of their village proved less popular with tourists than some of the dances from elsewhere that the visitors were more familiar with. And so, you know, the Saturday Night Native cultural dance that gets put on a lot of times at resorts - over the years, it ended up being imported from other places completely, and now they don't even know their old traditional dance anymore.

NADWORNY: Wow, that's really striking. You did mention that beach resorts have helped people gain better standards of living. You know, many of the economies of the countries you visited - they now really depend on beach tourism.

STODOLA: Mmm hmm.

NADWORNY: How do you weigh the pro and cons here?

STODOLA: Yeah, it's - I mean, that's the question. It's really difficult. One thing that I kind of wish that more places would think about is, you know, there does seem to be a tipping point in the growth and development of a place after which there are diminishing returns and a lot of environmental problems and kind of disillusionment come in. And so I think developing beach tourism can be a real positive for a locality up to a certain point, but it seems like too often, it's taken too far.

NADWORNY: Do you have any tips for people who are hoping maybe to go to the beach this summer?

STODOLA: I think it's important to remember that air travel tends to account for somewhere in the vicinity of 75% of a trip's overall carbon footprint. So starting to think about traveling more regionally is a good idea. Staying at resorts that are locally owned or operated or both tends to help a lot more of the revenues and the money generated stay in that community. And then there's just common-sense things that, you know, we probably already know about, like use reef-safe sunscreen and try not to leave your air conditioning on the whole time that you're there.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I mean, I felt so torn in reading the book because you're kind of glamorizing beach resorts at the same time that you're telling me these really terrible things that they're causing. I mean, I just felt such tension between wanting to go to the beach and not wanting to go to the beach.

STODOLA: Yes, yes. I definitely also experienced that. And hopefully, something that can come out of the book is, you know, I'm certainly not advocating that people should stop traveling or going on their beach vacations. But the hope is that we can get to a place where they are built better and the vacations are done better in a way that is not so at odds with the Earth, basically.

NADWORNY: Sarah Stodola - her new book is "The Last Resort: A Chronicle Of Paradise, Profit, And Peril At The Beach." Thank you so much for being with us.

STODOLA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.