Taking Sand from the Beach as a Souvenir? That’ll Be a €3000 Fine

Taking Sand from the Beach as a Souvenir? That'll Be a €3000 Fine | Frommer'sValerioMei / Shutterstock

Taking Sand from the Beach as a Souvenir? That’ll Be a €3000 Fine

The next time you’re at a beach you love, fight the urge to celebrate the place by taking some of it with you.

A single selfish tourist taking a small vial of sand would barely seem to matter. Indeed, some previous generations of travelers grew up thinking there’s no harm in snatching small amounts of beaches for sentiment’s sake. 

But if everyone did that, eventually the damage would mount. Just as the unthinkably massive herds of American buffalo were gradually hunted to the brink of extinction, many of the world’s beaches are under assault by extreme weather, dwindling local maintenance budgets, theft for industrial purposes (there’s a black market for sand), and hordes of self-centered visitors.

Destinations around the world are getting serious about banning the practice of taking sand, and many of them are backing up the rules with stiff fines and even the threat of prison time.

You might think that beaches are simply deposits of naturally replenishing sand. But you’d be wrong. A not-insignificant number of popular beaches have in fact been engineered to look and feel the way they do. Even in Florida, which is world-famous for its shores, the natural substance lining significant sections of the coast is actually a boggy gray mud more suited to growing mangrove trees than to playing beach blanket bingo.

In many popular tourist areas, the sugary powder we know and love is often the product of intentional civic engineering. Just this year, Fort Lauderdale spent $40 million and called in the Army Corps of Engineers to replenish its dwindling supply; in 2018, the price for new sand was $50 million. Over the past 80 years or so, Florida has spent more than $1.3 billion importing sand to help the shoreline maintain its postcard looks. 

Even places that might have naturally occurring pleasant sand, like California, are seeing more of it get washed out to sea by severe weather events. One report warned that California may lose up to 75% of its sand to erosion and sea level rise by the year 2100, a big reason why taking sand from the beaches there is now illegal.

And then there are the places where the sand is a unique natural wonder. 

Take the “popcorn” sand of El Hierro in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands—or better yet, don’t. The pleasingly bulbous, popcorn-like grains of sand (pictured below) are actually bits of coral worn smooth by the elements. Nature takes centuries to create and deposit the unique sand from offshore coral, but tourists scoop it up and remove it in seconds. By some estimates, as much as 22 pounds a year go missing off this tiny stretch of coast. At nearby Lanzarote, local officials say the plunder is even worse, estimating that as much as a ton of natural material vanishes from theft and erosion each year.

(Credit: amvideoart / Shutterstock)

That’s why the Canary Islands now imposes tough penalties for any visitor caught taking so much as a pebble. Fines of up to €3,000 (US$3,200) await those greedy visitors who get caught by luggage inspectors at the airport.

The situation is similar in Sardinia, Italy, where tourists are regularly caught trying to sneak out with the island’s sumptuous white grains. In more than one case, tourists were nabbed hundreds of miles away, transporting bottles filled with Sardinian sand during routine luggage inspections in France. Sardinia’s sand is considered a precious natural resource, so European officers are now threatening penalties as harsh as €3,000 in fines and 6 years in prison for trying to lift it.

Although Sardinia’s ban went into effect in 2017, the sand keeps disappearing into suitcases from around the world—another French tourist was recently fined more than $1,000 for taking 4 pounds.

You might expect a ban from nature reserves where the sand is clearly unique, such as the black volcanic grains of Floreana in the Galápagos Islands or the fine silica at Australia’s Whitsunday Islands National Park, where swiping sand can result in a fine of AU$10,000 on the spot. 

But in the face of rising environmental damage, new emergency bans are going into effect in quieter places where visitors might not realize the ground beneath their feet is protected. Pocket one of the smooth white stones found on Lalaria Beach, on the lesser-visited Greek island of Skiathos, and you’re looking at paying a penalty of €1,000 (US$1,087). That’s one very expensive pet rock.

Add to that the fact that it’s illegal to bring sand into the United States unless you can prove to inspectors that it has been declared “entirely free of soil or any other organic matter (such as algae) or any other soil.”

So carrying that one tiny bag or bottle of sand may carry penalties in your home country, too. In Horry County, South Carolina, for example, it could cost you as long as a month in jail.

And that’s nothing compared to Hawaii, where taking natural resources from the beach may reportedly incur a life-altering fine of up to $100,000. No wonder residents in the Aloha State cultivate rumors of a curse befalling those who steal sand, coral, and lava rocks.

So many tourists later experience regret over their thefts that the state regularly receives packages containing Hawaiian sand and rocks along with notes begging officials to return them to where they came from.

But putting natural resources back can also cause headaches. In 2013, Outside magazine reported that when wayward rocks are returned, Hawaii’s park rangers have to find ways to decontaminate them after possibly coming into contact with microbes not present in the islands.

Times have changed. The weather is getting harsher and tourists are getting more disrespectful, so locations around the world are cracking down with new penalties—even if you don’t know it. The next time your vacation leads you to a beautiful beach, take nothing home with you other than photos.

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