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Post-COVID plan for paid spots on Australia's Bondi divides sunseekers

Oct 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A proposal by a private club to cordon off a section of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach has divided local residents and sparked a debate on changes to public spaces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Amalfi Beach Club, in a petition posted online earlier this month, proposed paid access to individual cabanas or tents on part of Australia’s popular beach to meet rules on social distancing and group sizes, from the months of February to May.

The move would help create jobs and support the local economy, said Janek Gazecki, a producer at the Amalfi Beach Club. The petition, addressed to the local Waverley Council, has garnered about 1,000 signatures.

“Our proposal is not to privatise the beach, or make it exclusive for the wealthy. It utilises existing leasing mechanisms for use of public land - absolutely anyone can go online and book a space,” he said in response to criticism.

“It attracts tourism at a time when it is significantly down at Bondi Beach. It is an ideal way to raise morale and boost the local economy during a recession,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

Waverley Council said it was examining the proposal.

“While as a matter of principle, the regulatory and policy settings are geared towards beaches and open spaces being there to be enjoyed freely by everyone, this proposal needs to be properly assessed against those laws and policies,” Mayor Paula Masselos said in the statement.

“While there are various views on the proposal, anyone has the right to submit a proposal,” she said, adding that there would be a period of community consultation.

With some cities easing lockdown restrictions, tempers have flared over use of public spaces, as authorities have handed pavement space to restaurants in need of outdoor seating, and limited visitors to parks and beaches.

In Sydney, while many social media users welcomed the idea of a beach club with paid access, others slammed the proposal.

“This is disgusting, elitist and a horrible precedent to set. The beach should stay open and accessible to all,” Manion Harry wrote on the club’s Facebook post.

Public beaches are a particularly contentious issue, as hotels and private properties worldwide lock horns with locals over access.

As enclaves for the wealthy become popular on the back of the coronavirus, there will “undoubtedly” be some changes to use of space, said Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia’s Griffith University.

“For example, many restaurants are primarily serving customers in outdoor seating. But pavements exist primarily for pedestrians, so there will always be a practical limit to how much can be used for dining,” he said.

"Australian beaches are considered to be open to all, egalitarian and fundamental to social life. Privatising sections of them for any purpose is unlikely to garner significant community or council support," he said. (Reporting by Rina Chandran in Bangkok @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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