Stop Looting Our Beaches

The people’s legitimate claim for an equal enjoyment of coastal state lands and beaches cannot be short-changed by a few beach front recreational centres for senior citizens. These rights are paramount in a free Mauritius

Public beaches in the country have been systematically reduced over the years to a minimal area for the benefit of the multitude. They have progressively shrunk to basically a peau de chagrin. The covert and overt cessions of public beach space, coastal state lands and pas géométriques in the name of development by successive governments have taken their toll. The beaches of Mauritius reserved to the public currently represent a dwindling fraction of the approximately 330 kilometres of coastline made up of principally beautiful sandy beaches and lagoons protected by one of the world’s largest coral reef, surrounding most of the island.

This iniquitous policy masks the fact that citizens are in their own country being denied the enjoyment of most of the unique beaches of the country. Citizens cannot be worse off than visiting tourists in the enjoyment of the country’s beaches.

Unable to fairly arbitrate the central issue of public interest versus development imperatives, Government policy continues to short-change the people and encroach on the limited public beach space available, at the expense of the public interest. No effete and unconvincing government argumentation by underlings can justify such a flawed policy. It is time to stop the wanton looting of our beaches. This is the more galling as the beaches in the south of the island being distracted from public use are located in coastal areas where the sea is not apt or safe for swimming and tourist use. They however represent one of the last long stretches of pristine and sandy beaches enjoyed by the public.

Campements sites, most of which dating from pre-independence days, already occupy the major part of the prime coastal sea front of Mauritius. Beach hotels occupy at least another 20% of the prime beaches on the coast. The public beaches have progressively been contracted to a residual fraction of the country’s coastline. In such a context, how can the government and the country continue with the abject policy of ring fencing part of the remaining beaches of the country for the exclusive use of tourists at the expense of citizens?

The growing clamour and protests of the forces vives and the people against the government policy of insidiously eroding the beach space available to the public urgently calls for an intelligent paradigm shift in policy. The current policy has outlived its life cycle and is no longer tenable nor sustainable.

The Nice, Cannes, Miami Beach or Copacabana model

Anybody who has travelled to some of the best resorts in the world in Nice, Cannes or Deauville in France, Miami Beach in the United States, Kuta beach in Bali or Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil knows that in keeping with a sensible government policy the top hotels at these prime resorts do not corner parts of the iconic beaches in these resorts for the exclusive use of their clients but are situated on the other side of main beach coastal road such as the Promenade des Anglais, La Croisette or the Avenue Atlantica in Copacabana, etc.. Put simply, all these world famous long stretches of beach are available for the common enjoyment of local citizens and tourists alike, despite the fact that these countries have significantly more coastline than Mauritius.

Moreover, tourists are not corralled in securely guarded hotel enclaves around their exclusive private beach segregated from the rich culture, experience and people of their host country. Such a business model represents the mindset of a bygone era. It is short sighted and prevents the hotel industry from having dynamic linkages and a positive multiplier effect on the larger tourism industry comprising service providers, tour operators, the shopping outlets and malls, restaurants, the diverse tourist sites and facilities, taxi owners, etc. All these economic actors are essential stakeholders of a vibrant tourism industry.

All of us who travel abroad on holidays in equally exotic resorts such as Bali or Cancun in Mexico do not shut ourselves in the hotel sipping margaritas on the rocks or mojitos basking in the sun but go out on tours to imbibe the rich Balinese culture and food, shop and buy art paintings in Ubud or visit the stunning Mayan pyramid of Chechen Itza or snorkel at the Mayan resort of Tulum. Most tourism industries of the world also ensure through tour operators and other service providers that the tourists visiting their country also go out to visit the main tourist attractions of the country, eat out, shop in shopping malls and spend money in addition to the money spent in travel and lodging. Anybody visiting the Far East is aware that sightseeing and shopping tours are essential and high income generating elements of the tourism industry.

In our tourism industry model, we do not seem to be doing enough to get the more than a million tourists visiting the country every year out of their hotels to visit the many tourist attractions and spend money outside the hotel by taking advantage of the many attractive duty free shopping opportunities in the country. The social and economic responsibilities of the hotel industry towards the country are not limited to the employment in priority of people from the surrounding villages and region. They also entail generating positive economic fall-outs by inter alia preferably sourcing their fresh produce directly from farmers, services and supplies from the numerous economic actors geared towards and dependent on the tourism industry instead of through captive trading companies. Keeping tourists indoors in hotels in a self sufficient enclave limits the positive multiplier effect of tourists’ spending on the rest of the economy. Sensible tourists generally do not shop in hotel shops except for mementoes.

Government facilitation and the development of the tourism industry can therefore only be sustainable if it creates a win-win situation for economic actors, the young seeking employment in the region, suppliers and service providers dependent on it. The government can through an intelligent oversight ensure that the hotel industry has dynamic linkages with the economic actors of the larger tourism industry. The development of the hotel industry has to be holistic. It cannot mean keeping supplies, services provided and tourist activities outside the hotel captive.

In the Caribbean in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) or Cancun (Mexico) all drinks made out of local produce such as rum, lime, fruit juice, tequila or liqueur are free at the bar. This simple policy provides a tremendous impetus to farmers and producers supplying fresh fruits, fruit juice, tequila, liqueur or rum to the hotels. Such a policy would have a similar positive fall out on the local producers of these products.

We must remember than many things have changed materially since when government keen to develop tourism after independence started allocating large swathes of prime coastal land in all the prime sites of the country such as in Trou aux Biches, the North, le Morne, Belle Mare, Flic en Flac or Blue Bay, etc., to principally local promoters. The upshot of a continuous policy of coastal land allocation spanning nearly five decades has been that across the country citizens who used to enjoy various prime public beaches and favourite swimming coves in all the coastal regions have slowly been denied this access as these have been allocated for diverse hotel projects. Beach land has therefore become extremely scarce. In contrast to what happens in the top resorts of the world, coastal roads have even been diverted in the North and the South in order to accommodate hotel promoters and enable them to corner another stretch of the country’s diminishing beach front for the exclusive use of their clients.

The downturn faced by the hotel industry in the context of the international financial crisis has prompted the hotel groups to hastily review their business model, upgrade their top management with experienced professionals from the trade and adapt the standard of their services and packages offered to be competitive in a difficult market context. It has also led hotels to open up and canvass Mauritians by proposing interesting packages to attract them to the hotels in a bid to shore up revenue.

It must be said that the industry was slow to realise the growing tourist potential of China, India or Russia as emerging economic giants in a context of profound changes in the world economic landscape. The initial response to tap into these growth markets was tepid. Cogent steps must be taken to tide over the language barrier to better welcome them. The IMF in its report issued this week confirmed a context of subdued global growth and persistent stagnation in advanced economies after eight years of an enduring international crisis. This means that the industry has to be nimble to adapt to and seize the opportunities of the new global configuration and the significantly enhanced air access and connectivity now in place in Mauritius, if it is to become a much more robust vector of growth in the country.

Urgency of a paradigm shift in policy

In the light of the above, a paradigm shift in public beach policy is urgently required. First and foremost, the government must stop all declassification of public beaches. The length and area of public beaches are finite and must be added to for the benefit of the people and not reduced. In line with what prevails in the prime resorts across the world, all new hotel developments must henceforth be built on the lea side of the coastal road leaving the beaches accessible to both local residents and tourists alike. A well couched coastal development master plan could include hotel clusters, duty free shopping malls, craft markets, restaurants, art galleries, food courts, tour operators and service providers easily accessible to tourists in an inland integrated development behind the coastal road aimed at enhancing the Mauritian experience and facilitating and maximizing tourist spending in the country.

Global warming is also taking its toll through rising sea levels and coastal erosion. The growing risks of tsunamis and the high costs of maintenance of campements sites make them less attractive and certainly quite onerous for many to hold on to. In the light of the limited coastal land available, would it not make more economic and national sense for government to start constituting a coastal land bank as and when the related leases are relinquished or mature. Government policy instruments could be used accordingly. This would also enable Mauritius to plan the coastal development of Mauritius on a more inclusive basis inland while opening up larger tracks of beaches to the public and the tourists. This process must above all be transparent.

In parallel, it is equally important that government devise a comprehensive national policy to coach all Mauritians to swim properly and organize facilities on public beaches for people to be initiated in the diverse sea and beach sports such as sailing, wind surfing or beach volley, etc. This would enable more people to safely enjoy the pleasures of our lagoons and the sea.

The unique sense of hospitality and service provided by the hotel staff and personnel are intrinsic elements of the Mauritian brand and the main reason for the unswerving loyalty of the tourists towards the Mauritian product and destination. Isn’t it high time to reward the contribution and dedication of hotel employees to the success of the industry through a share bonus scheme to comfort going forward their sense of belonging and ownership?

The coastal state lands and beaches are among the most valuable assets of the State. The people’s legitimate claim for an equal enjoyment of these assets cannot be short-changed by a few beach front recreational centres for senior citizens. These rights are paramount in a free Mauritius. To allay the rising clamour, they must unequivocally be safeguarded and consolidated.

Mrinal Roy

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