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Who Owns St. Lucia's Beaches…Citizens or Celebrities?

St. Lucians can usually visit any beach they choose, but thanks to a recent celebrity wedding, the beach surrounding a local resort was deemed off limits, raising longstanding questions about beach access and the cost benefits of large resorts.

The catalyst to the discussion was actor Matt Damon's renewal of his wedding vows to his wife Luciana Barroso. The event, which included several other A-list celebrities, took place at the Sugar Beach Resort near the town of Soufriere: Damon booked the entire high-end, 78-room property. As a result, not only beach access, but also fishing activities in the area were restricted; netizens had a lot to say about the move.

In the Facebook group St. Lucians Aiming for Progress the debate was raging, with some arguing that it was no big deal, especially since the island would benefit from the international attention, while others like Iain Sandy, saw the restriction of access and bringing the island further down a slippery slope:

You know… As someone born in the Caribbean who did not appreciate what I had until I lived away from it for 30 years or so, I'll tell you that I understand those who don't get it. I've met a lot of lucians who can't remember the last time they went anywhere near the beach (or the mountains for that matter). I can tell you that I've also been in countries where the hotels have managed to own, or to make it extremely uncomfortable for locals to access beaches… and it always starts with ‘just’ one beach. It always starts with ‘you people need to understand we are getting revenue'.

Minerva Ward wondered about the priorities of those who made the decision:

What is the priority? The privacy of celebrities who visit St Lucia? The economic benefits of celebrities visiting St Lucia vs. the social cost? The possible airtime St Lucia can gain from from a celebrity visit? The economic losses to locals who are displaced or whose businesses are disrupted from a celebrity visit? The protection of our rights as St Lucians despite the perceived or potential benefits? Do we discard our constitutional rights as St Lucians to make a celebrity happy? Who makes that decision and under what law do they have that authority? What is the priority for you?

She added that if locals begin to resent the tourism industry, everyone will suffer:

There is a theory in tourism called the Index of Irritation that a tourist destination goes through: Euphoria-> Apathy-> Annoyance-> Antagonism. We have to be very careful, when we intrude on the rights of citizens, impact their income, place the desires of tourists [above] their own or not control the negative social impacts of tourism, that we do not quickly reach the stage [of] Annoyance and Antagonism. Then we will truly be shooting ourselves in the foot as the friendliness and hospitality once displayed to visitors will turn into annoyance, hostility and even possibly crimes against tourists.

Amatus Edward felt that the issue was being overblown and that the compromises being made were nothing new:

Tourism is a service organization and we are giving up alot of things to get the money. It is nothing uncommon for us to be giving up rights for the sake of money. There is no stench. We are splitting hairs.

What is a weekend? Some of you have not been to the beach in years. What [if] it was a stormy weekend? We are shooting ourselves in the foot. Grow up my sisters and brothers.

Paul Clifford felt that those who were saying the exposure would be worth it were missing the big picture:

This isn't about a few dollars compensation for fisherpeople & water taxi operators living a hand-to-mouth existence… this is about Lucians being cut out of Tourism Industry development… limited to service industry jobs, ‘managers’ of outside interests.

Leo Robinson thought that no matter what, there will always be tradeoffs:

This is nothing new. If we want to play in this business on a big scale, these are some of the inconveniences we have to deal with. There is a price to pay for everything. Nothing comes free. If we drilling for oil, we have to be prepared to deal with the pollution and the oil spills. If we attract huge sports events, we give the government the authority to shut down public roads, schools, etc. Who call the shots, not me, not you. We gave the government the authority to do that when we elect[ed] them to be custodians of the country. My right to go to the beach to build sandcastles to me is a selfish and small matter, when we dealing with the greater good for the country. There are many other beaches on which I can go and build sandcastles.

Shazi Chalon argued that areas are restricted for economic reasons in other places all the time:

The biggest money earner in New York is the movie industry…on any given day the subway, the streets, entire areas are blocked off for the movie crew and actors from a people who value their freedom of movement, without any complaints from the citizens of the Big Apple!!!

Leigh Allain felt that not enough notice was given for the restrictions

None of us would be talking about this if the Soufriere population was told in advance. If locals were informed early no one would care because everyone would have had more than enough time to make other plans. Everyone would right now be wishing the happy couple the best and thanks for the publicity and early notice of their plans. Imagine planning and paying a guide to trail the Pitons and only upon arrival you find [it's] boarded up because someone is making a movie or documentary? The REAL DANGER AND THREAT is that this is just the tip of the iceberg which someday will mean the Pitons, National Park and beaches will all be fenced up and guarded from locals and foreigners unless they pay and I don't mean small fees but hotel day passes etc. Traveling abroad I learn[ed] to appreciate just driving to the beach and having a good time in St.Lucia without going through a hotel and security, which only happens after I shell out money.

Gerry George said that the beach closure was less of an issue than, the protocol that was needed:

It should be perfectly ok to close off the beach whenever and wherever required. HOWEVER, there should be a standardized and clear procedure for doing so. This should involve consultation and notices to the potential affected persons (stakeholders), and payment of the necessary licenses and permits to the relevant stakeholders. There would also be compensation if necessary for those disadvantaged (whose livelihoods will be negatively impacted). Those compensation levels would be negotiated and handled also by the relevant custodians. They should also be made to comply with the standard requirements of crowd gatherings…emergency requirements, police/security presence, etc. The point is that there may be times when resources (streets, etc) may be made unavailable to the general public, and there should be rules and procedures by which this is done. This has noting to do with celebrity status, and so we should not rely on adhoc rules made up on the spot. Also, the hotel should not be the one to make the decision of closing the beach, [nor] should [it] be the one [to] profit from its closure (a guest paying them to close it) at their discretion, as the beach is not their exclusive property.

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