Sea sand, new « souvenir » for tourists?

In August 2018, a British tourist was controlled at Cagliari airport in Sardinia with a bottle of sand from Gallura region in his luggage. This holidaymaker is not an isolated case as during summer 2017, nearly a ton of sand was seized at the same airport. At the rate of one bottle of sand per tourist at a frequency of 10 million per year, the island will soon be out of these precious aggregates. That is why since 1st of August 2017, Sardinia lists the collect of sand or shellfish as a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 500 to 3000€ that can be accompanied by detention.


@Gettyimages, Santa Teresa beach, Gallura region, Sardinia

From the formation of sea sand to its arrival on the beaches

Sand formation on beaches is a process that lasts thousands of years. The water and wind weaken the rocks, the waves break against them, tearing off pieces that go away with the water. Over time, following marine currents, they break apart and round, then become finer and finer. In parallel, organic materials such as seashells, skeletons and corals disintegrate. Marine currents transport part of the seabed to the shores, and the wind participates by dropping light enough grains.

Their texture, pigment, shape, composition make sand unique from one beach to another. Nearly 180 different minerals were discovered in the sands out of the 4,900 existing species. It is also with these specificities that sand from deserts can be distinguished for example, as it is considered round, fine and it does not aggregate.

The role of tourists in landscapes modification

In Italy alone, between the pink sand coves of Budelli island (closed to the public in 1998), the stretches of colored quartz of Mari Ermi or the white sand banks of Cala luna, the temptation to extract a few grams of minerals is strong. This action is similar to the more general notion of “gleaning”. More and more tourists want to exhibit their holiday sand in a transparent bottle. In addition to them, there are the traditional “arenophiles” (sand collectors) who open the market for online auctions of these flasks.

The extraction itself has consequences whatever the beach; the sites classified by UNESCO are not the only ones affected. The modification of landscapes remains above all a natural phenomenon led by erosion, marine currents, wind… but this action is amplified and accelerated by humans.


@Gettyimages, Azur Windows before its natural collapsing due to erosion, Malta

Weakened shores and transformed landscapes

The plundering of sea sand has many consequences on the ecosystem. Indeed, the micro-fauna that lives in the sand disappears or is substituted by other species. Consequently, the food chain of certain species of birds or fish is broken, contributing to their partial or total disappearance from the coasts. Sand also forms a protective barrier against waves, preventing submergence phenomena on a more or less large scale: sea level progress on coastal grounds, islands sinking, rising waters…

Furthermore, extraction by the industries must be accounted as when they operate quarries near the coasts, they take part in the salinisation of the water tables.

What French law states

In France, beaches belong to the State under the public maritime domain, and the latter concedes their exploitation to the municipalities. The Environmental Code tolerates gleaning in small quantities for personal use. Tolerating is not encouraging. Normandy has banned the collection of pebbles since 1976, because of the division by 2 of the stock in the nineteenth century.

However, Article L321-8 of the Code states that sand extraction is prohibited if it compromises the integrity of the beach or coastline, which is the case if it is done on a large scale. The problem being that a small extraction by a tourist becomes a large extraction when the action is repeated thousands of times…

How to resist temptation?

To deter tourists from the beginning, prevention signs are installed on the beaches. Others have gone even further by hiring security guards to report flagrant offences in places where gleaning is not tolerated.

An alternative for the locals could be the driftwood. This wood belongs to a different category than sand and seashells: the water mark, i.e. all natural debris of plant and animal origins that are left behind by the sea. Driftwood is processed as a household waste. However local associations or artists claim their revalorisation because once taken from the beaches, they are often burned. Artists make decorative elements that will then be sold in beachside shops.

Tourists should prefer photos, on which the light will highlight the true color of sand and seashells. Moreover, these minerals are a part of the landscape to which they are inseparable as they contribute to the reputation of the place.

Even if the tourists action participates in the acceleration of the landscapes modification, the industrial extraction amplifies it. Indeed, 15 to 20 billion tons of sand per year in the world are used for construction, and sea sand has the best properties for that purpose. The creation of artificial islands as in Dubai, Monaco and Singapore must be considered as a cause of the modification of coastal landscapes. In our everyday life, nearly 18 kg of sand per day and per person are consumed (concrete, glass, micro-processor…).

Ophélie, writer for EVI