Image: Saugatuck Dunes
MaryLou Graham  /  NatureShapesPhoto.com
Saugatuck is only 90 miles by boat from Chicago, but a visit to the classic resort town is like a step back in time. Among its many charms are beaches distinguished by the rare freshwater dunes formed by the waves of Lake Michigan.
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updated 9/21/2010 12:29:17 PM ET 2010-09-21T16:29:17

Picture the gorgeous beach you spent a week on this summer.

Now picture that same beach next summer, destroyed. Perhaps it eroded so much that there's barely room to spread out a towel. Maybe a colossal concrete hotel is being built where the sand dunes used to be. Maybe it has been coated with a slick of spilled oil. Hopefully, your slice of paradise will remain well preserved. But at many beaches around the world, nightmares like these are coming true (just ask anyone who lives on the Gulf Coast).

We've selected seven beach destinations around the world in danger of disappearing forever due to forces such as erosion, pollution, rising sea levels, reckless overdevelopment, and sand mining. But there are hundreds more. If we don't curb global warming, insist on sustainable development, and protect the world's beaches against pollution and mismanagement, the idyllic shorelines we cherish will be preserved only in memory.

The Maldives
With postcard-ready beaches, unblemished coral reefs, and some of the world's most luxurious resorts, the Maldives are for many a once-in-a-lifetime destination. But the island nation's own lifetime may itself be cut drastically short: Rising sea levels all but doom this string of 26 low-lying atolls in the Indian Ocean, unless the rest of the world acts — quickly — to curb global warming.

With an average elevation of just four feet, the Maldives may, according to some scientists' models, be submerged before the end of the century. Other coastal geologists believe that the islands, which are composed principally of coral, can regenerate more quickly than the water level rises, and that wave action can build up the islands. But rising ocean temperatures — another symptom of global warming — inhibit coral growth, and few Maldivians seem prepared to sit back and take that chance. President Mohamed Nasheed has committed the Maldives to becoming the world's first carbon-neutral nation by 2020, by building a wind farm to meet 40 percent of the electricity demand; installing 5 million square feet of solar panels; recycling agricultural waste as fertilizer; and asking foreign visitors to buy carbon credits. Valiant as these efforts may be, they are unlikely to stem the (literal) tide, so Nasheed is also searching for a new homeland in case the entire population is forced to relocate.

If you go: The Marine Lab at the Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru resort does serious scientific research on marine ecology, coral recovery, and endangered species. Guests can visit the lab and join biologists on dives.

Goa, India
Despite having a coastline that extends over 4,300 miles, India doesn't attract nearly as many visitors to its beautiful beaches as to its temples and palaces. Perhaps that explains why those beaches are so neglected: According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, about 25 percent of India's coastline faces "serious erosion" caused by everything from rising sea levels to the removal of sand dunes to the construction of hundreds of new harbors.

Goa, the former Portuguese colony turned hippie enclave turned chic resort destination, may be where the problem is most visible: The state's entire 63-mile coastline is eroded, and some beaches have lost as much as 65 feet of landmass in recent years. Matanhy Saldana, a social activist and former Goa tourism minister, points to multiple causes, including the construction of a massive naval port and the destruction of vegetation along the shore. At popular Candolim beach, a ship abandoned after it ran aground in June 2000 is acting as a giant jetty, pulling sand away from the shore. The state recently appealed to the national government for help funding anti-erosion projects, but Goan activists contend that development is taking precedence over ecological matters. "As long as greed prevails and governments and the public don't consider that the environment cannot [be] tampered with, there will be no solution," says Saldana.

If you go: Many of Goa's great beaches, including Velsao, Cansaulim, Utorda, and Miramar, are unaffected by erosion. The brother-and-sister owners of the charming Vivenda dos Palhaços guesthouse in Majorda, South Goa, will help steer you to the highlights.  

Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Phu Quoc, a sleepy tropical island off Vietnam's southwest coast, in the Gulf of Thailand, is 220 square miles of near-empty white-sand beaches, unpaved roads, and simple bungalow-style guesthouses, with a population unperturbed by the forces of mass tourism. The handful of foreign visitors who've been there say it's the exact opposite of places like Phuket — and yet, "the next Phuket" is exactly what the Vietnamese government is hoping Phu Quoc will become.

A master plan unveiled by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in May 2010 envisions a world-class tourism center with an international airport (already under construction), cruise ports, casinos, a business and finance hub, and 7 million tourists by 2030. That's quite a change from the 162,000 visitors the island received in the first eight months of 2009. The government insists that sustainability and preservation are part of the plan.

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Vietnam's hopelessly convoluted and corrupt bureaucracy will make it hard to get much built on Phu Quoc, say insiders, as will the island's relative inaccessibility. So there's still a chance that at least part of Phu Quoc's peaceful, unspoiled vibe will remain untarnished. But the 12-mile stretch of paradise known as Bai Truong (Long Beach) has already seen some concrete cookie-cutter hotels crop up alongside the more charming thatched-roof bungalows.

If you go: Mango Bay, on Long Beach, maintains the low-key Phu Quoc vibe with 31 bungalows made from local materials and furnished with mosquito-netted four-poster beds and solar showers.

Saugatuck Dunes, Michigan
Saugatuck is only 90 miles by boat from Chicago, but a visit to the classic resort town is like a step back in time. Among its many charms are beaches distinguished by the rare freshwater dunes formed by the waves of Lake Michigan. "Right now, you can see the dunes very much as Europeans saw them 200 years ago," says David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. Yet they may be in peril. The issue: a development proposed for a parcel of beachfront just outside the gates of Saugatuck Dunes State Park.

While the developer maintains that preserving the local culture and ecology are its top priorities, critics contend that the plan to build about 30 homes, a nine-hole golf course, a 66-slip marina, and a small hotel and condos heralds a drastic and deplorable change. Among the worries: The hotel's nine-story tower would forever alter a landscape that has drawn artists for centuries, and the construction will harm the fragile ecology of the 200-foot-high dunes. Local zoning laws prohibit anything of the scale being proposed, but the developer has filed a series of lawsuits to change them. In response, Saugatuck residents recently voted to raise taxes for a legal defense fund. Meanwhile, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Saugatuck Dunes on its 2010 list of the country's most endangered historic places, and the developer has threatened to sue for defamation. Much of the shore remains protected, including Oval Beach, its best-known stretch, and an adjacent parcel the developer sold back to the municipality and state for conservation. But the rest of the shoreline — and the future of the town — hang in the balance.

If you go: Stay at the Sea Suites Boat & Breakfast, an inn located on a 105-foot houseboat docked right outside town. It has four large air-conditioned suites with private baths, and a hot tub on the top deck.

Morocco
You'd think that a desert country like Morocco would have enough sand for everyone. But at least a few parties feel the need to steal sand from Morocco's Atlantic beaches. Yes, steal it — by literally bulldozing dunes, trucking the sand away to make cement, and leaving behind ugly lunar landscapes.

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Coastal Care, a U.S.–based environmental organization that advocates for the world's beaches, has found destructive sand mining operations in over 30 countries, as far afield as Cambodia, Jamaica, and Australia. But its co-founder, Olaf Guerrand-Hermès, believes that the situation is worst in Morocco, where hundreds of miles have been mined for decades, particularly along the stretch of Atlantic coast between Tangier and Casablanca. Outside the small seaside towns of Larache and Kenitra, for instance, dunes have been completely bulldozed. According to Guerrand-Hermès, who has a home in the area, the sand-mining business is run by a syndicate second in size only to Morocco's drug mafia. The Moroccan government has designated Larache as a target for major resort development, but the large-scale removal of sand makes the beaches unsuitable for tourism. It also ruins turtle and seabird nesting areas and exacerbates erosion problems by removing nature's defenses against storms.

If you go: The northern Moroccan coast — a stretch Budget Travel has called the "next French Riviera" — is still being discovered by visitors. Asilah is known for its restored whitewashed walls and narrow streets; less-polished Larache has a bustling medina and still-intact beaches. Stay at the Hotel Al-Khaima, just outside Asilah and directly across from a gorgeous stretch of sand.

Mullins Bay, Barbados
Most islands in the Caribbean suffer erosion to a certain degree, much of it from natural causes. Barbados, a country dependent on tourism, knows it needs to protect its beaches, but some of its attempts to do so end up making matters worse. Local environmental activists contend that in several places along Barbados's west shore — the famed Platinum Coast, lined with luxury hotels, condos, and expensive homes — erosion has been exacerbated by the construction of seawalls and groins.

On the island's northwest coast, sunbathers used to be able to walk from the popular beach bar on Mullins Beach north for several miles up the sandy shore. Now, there are only impassable boulders, sea walls, and crashing surf. The author of the local Mullins Bay blog blames the construction of three stone groins at St. Peter's Bay, a new condominium development a quarter mile north of Mullins Beach. Installed ostensibly to help build up the beach there, the structures have sapped the adjacent shoreline of sand. Surprisingly, Barbados's Coastal Zone Management Unit, a government agency charged with controlling erosion, approved the groins. It maintains that global warming is the main culprit in the island's erosion problem. Rising sea levels and severe storms certainly play a role, but to protect its shoreline, Barbados also needs to balance the demands of development and preservation.

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If you go: Barbados's east coast is less developed but not unfamiliar with the power of the sea. The Crane Resort owes its pink sand beach and spectacular cliff-top position to the waves that crash onto the shore.  

The Gulf of Mexico
While BP's Deepwater Horizon well was spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, predictions for the area's beaches were dire: sand covered in tar, sea life destroyed, water too toxic for swimming. The reality, thankfully, has turned out to be much less horrific. While there are still occasional reports of tiny tar balls or dead birds on beaches in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — and the full impact of the oil spill on the Gulf's ecology is still unknown — most of the region's beaches are still in good shape. But the Gulf's beaches are still under grave threat from the perception that the problem is much, much worse.

Respondents to a recent survey by Travelocity erroneously believed that the spill had affected locations as far afield as Cancún, the Florida Keys, and Miami, which is on the Atlantic Coast (landlocked Orlando was cited by 4 percent). "It reminds me of Mexico last year, when the border cities were having issues with drug-related violence, but the negative perceptions affected destinations all around Mexico," says Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor of Travelocity. Estimates of the economic impact on tourism are forthcoming, but innkeepers, fishing captains, and rental agents are already calling 2010 the "lost summer."

If you go: Many Gulf Coast hotels are guaranteeing an oil-free vacation: If a beach is closed within 20 miles of where you're staying, and you prefer to cancel, they'll refund your money. Participating hotels are listed at http://www.travelocity.com/oilspillinfo.

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