The beach: public or private paradise?

When most people imagine a beach, they think of white sand, a turquoise sea, palm trees, bright sun, and, curiously, no people. In short, a sacred space. However, our experience when visiting a beach is different from this vision; there are almost always more people besides us on the beach, and not all beaches have palm trees or white sand.

The idea of ​​the beach as paradise is relatively new and dates back to the late 19th century when tourism became popular in Europe as a leisure activity. The beaches were then associated with tranquility and healing spaces: Salus per aquam, which translated from Latin means “Health by means of water,” and was later coined as the more familiar word, “spa”.

The charm of beaches “lies in their wealth of shapes and figures, which differentiates them from other coastal environments and ecosystems, which can be distinguished from the air (dunes and beaches), at beach level (feet in the sand), and from the microscope (grains of sand); thus giving us an environmental, landscape, social and economic value. It is derived from this magic that the beaches have become a primary natural attraction, a natural tourist resource, and as an object of advertising and attraction that is used by the sun and beach tourism sector at the level of countries and states; for the promotion of coastal real estate; the promotion of travel, airlines, food, and beverages and even as a health promotion site.” (Cervantes, 2019)

This perception of the beach fed by the tourist and real estate markets has led to a series of legal and social conflicts regarding access to and use, enjoyment, exploitation, and transit of beaches around the planet. Thus, it is crucial to clarify the private perception of the beaches and their public property.

In advertising used to promote sun and beach destinations, allusion is made to beaches as private or intimate spaces, where couples or families can enjoy the scenic beauty without disturbances from the outside. Nothing could be further from the truth unless you own a private island in Dubai or visit a deluxe bungalow in Fiji. For most tourists, beaches are spaces where, in principle, there are other guests in the case of hotels, beach clubs, or condominiums. Additionally, many tourist beaches have neighborhoods with local populations who use the same beaches, either as tourists or as workers in the tourism sector.

Therefore, privacy is an idea that is sold, but not a reality that is bought.

A second consideration is a differentiation between ownership and the use of public vs. private spaces. We will discuss beach ownership later, but I can anticipate that beach ownership is public in most Latin American and Caribbean countries; however, the use of the beaches can be public or private.

In Mexico, private use of the beaches is possible when the federal authority grants a concession title or a temporary sales permit (called administrative acts) in certain sections of the sandy area (called legal figures) such as the Maritime Terrestrial Federal Zone, the Land Taken from the Sea, and the Maritime Beach. Since the State owns the beaches, the concessionaires or permit holders require the free movement of anyone in the sandy area they are occupying, and very recently, it approved that universal access to the beaches is allowed. Some authors call this process of granting administrative acts administrative privatization. However, the authorities’ surveillance capacity is limited, and there are factum privatization processes on the beaches, which can be understood as social practices that limit access to and use, enjoyment, exploitation, and transit of the beaches, typically to local populations by hotels, condos, and beach clubs. This privatization is closely related to processes of exclusion, dispossession, and social segregation and which has led to many social conflicts since they are based on the public use of the beaches, for leisure or work, and where ordinarily local populations are the most affected.

In most of the legal frameworks of the Spanish ex-colonies’ countries, beaches are national assets; that is, they are the State’s property. This is because beaches were considered territories that had to be defended from pirate invasions or other military powers, for which they were established as the first frontiers. The military maneuvers required at least 20 bars (current equivalent to 20 m) to be efficient. Therefore, the current beaches in the Latin American and Caribbean regions have legal figures ranging between 20 to 60 meters of national assets owned by the State. This means that there is a strip of territory held by the State to which there is an adjacent strip where private property begins. In the Mexican case, to request private use of the beaches, you must confirm that you are the private property owner adjacent to the state property.

In conclusion, beaches are spaces where the scenic, environmental, and cultural values are vast. Let’s not let the illusion of an uninhabited, unspoiled paradise without an apparent owner cloud our visit to the beach (currently the Proplayas Network is coordinating a project that explores the ownership, uses, and associated conflicts of beaches in Latin America and the Caribbean). That is why in my next post, I will analyze some essential elements for its integrated management.  Stay tuned!

The beach and the bridge
Photo credit Hobo Matt

Author: Ulsia Urrea Mariño

I am a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in the Coastal and Marine System Science program, Master in Urban Studies at COLMEX, and Undergraduate in Sustainable Management of Coastal Zones at UNAM. My professional research lines are: the Mexican's beach management, the integral management of solid waste in coastal localities, anthropological analysis of fishers, examines on Mexican legislation on seas and coasts, the study of urban development since tourism and climate change points of view, and the Mexican ocean energy. The areas of work where I have developed my studies have been the North Mexican Pacific, The Gulf of Mexico, and The Mexican Caribbean Sea. I am also a documentalist and member of RICOMAR, IBERMAR, PROPLAYAS, Centro Tepoztlán Víctor L. Urquidi, and Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance networks.

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