NEGRIL, Jamaica (AP) ― Tourists from around the world are drawn to a stretch of palm-fringed shoreline known as “Seven Mile Beach,” a crescent of white sand along the turquoise waters of Jamaica’s western coast. But the sands are slipping away and Jamaicans fear the beach, someday, will need a new nickname.
Each morning, groundskeepers with metal rakes carefully tend Negril’s resort-lined shore. Some sections, however, are barely wide enough for a decent-sized beach towel and the Jamaican National Environment and Planning Agency says sand is receding at a rate of more than a meter a year.
“The beach could be totally lost within 30 years,” said Anthony McKenzie, a senior director at the agency.
Shrinking coastline long has raised worry for the area’s environmental and economic future. Now, the erosion is expected to worsen as a result of climate change, and a hint of panic is creeping through this laid back village, one of the top destinations in a country where a quarter of all jobs depend on tourism.
“If the water takes over this beach, well, that’s the end of the tourists,” Lyn Dennison said as she tended to her beachside stand selling jewelry and wooden statues of roosters, horses and other animals.
For much of its history, Negril was an isolated fishing outpost. In the late 1960s, it began to draw American hippies lured by the scenery and cheap marijuana. As its fame grew, its charms were discovered by hard-partying spring breakers and more sober-minded visitors. Resorts such as Sandals and the Grand Lido went up and the number of annual visitors grew from about 40,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 2012.
Fearful of losing their main draw, some alarmed hoteliers are pressing the government to refill the beach with dredged sand, a pricey step many experts say is a temporary fix at best.
Jamaica is readying plans to build submerged breakwaters it hopes will absorb wave energy and slow loss of shoreline, using an initial $5.4 million in grants from a U.N. climate change convention.
The breakwater project in Negril, which one study says could cost as much as $77 million over the course of 80 years, offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for other coastal towns. Caribbean islands, many already heavily in debt, will be faced with the choice of trying to armor shores with seawalls and breakwaters, or conducting a costly retreat from seas that the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says could rise by nearly a meter by the end of the century.
Beaches across the region are being transformed by a variety of factors: shoreline development; surges from increasingly intense storms; coastal pollution that affects marine life; and coral reefs crumbling in warmer waters.