The marina or port de plaisance is a facility for sheltering pleasure boats and for mooring them on an occasional, seasonal, or annual basis. In addition to this technical function of providing shelter and mooring space (most often floating moorings), marinas serve other purposes: as a tourist and recreational centre, a venue for events or a place for leisurely walks (promenades), a base for sports events, a space for business and services, etc.
However, they are not defined by their field of activity, the nature of their facilities (pontoons, simple anchorage or quay moorings), the type of services available to users or their location (river, sea-river or sea port). In fact, in France the marina is legally defined in terms of the allocation of a portion of the coastal area: a facility and a body of water intended for the reception of pleasure boats by allocation order. In the 1960s, some marinas were built on the basis of simple authorisations for the temporary occupation of public space, or on the basis of authorisations for private facilities with public service obligation.
Marinas, key infrastructure of coastal areas
Private ports thus emerged. By encouraging speculation and real estate development, particularly on land reclaimed from the sea under containment concession contracts, these developments raised the problem of appropriation of the coastal space. Since the state did not want to encourage unbridled private occupation of public space, it prohibited these practices in the early 1970s. And since it did not wish to bear all the costs of these operations either, it finally adopted the concession regime, which has been amended several times since. This is an administrative contract by virtue of which the state entrusts a public, or sometimes a private, legal person with the creation, maintenance and operation of port structures. In return for the costs to be borne, the concessionaire has a number of rights, including the possibility of charging users a fee for mooring vessels. Once the concession expires (after a few decades), the concessionaire is obliged to hand the facilities over to the public authorities in a well-maintained state.
The marina: a recent concept
Until the mid-1960s, there were no heavy structures in France reserved for pleasure vessels. Indeed, there were not many pleasure vessels at the time. Boats were moored on individual anchorages installed by the boaters themselves. At best, they occupied a few berths in fishing or trading ports, where their presence was tolerated. But over the years, to meet a growing demand for moorings, the need to set up structures reserved for pleasure craft became apparent. Some tourist resorts launched in the 19th century created a “yacht basin” to receive luxurious vessels owned by the wealthy clientèle who frequented them (for example, in Deauville). But it was not until the 1960s that marinas in the modern sense, opened to a wider clientèle, appeared.
In 2021, France had more than 260 marinas on the sea and 35 on rivers with a capacity of over 100 boats. They offer a total of over 200,000 floating moorings. They are unevenly distributed along the French coast: the Mediterranean coast accounts for 45% of the total capacity, and the Brittany region more than a quarter. The French port network is one of the best structured in the world: three-quarters of sea and river marinas are members of the Fédération française des ports de plaisance (French Federation of Marinas), created in 1979.
Since the decentralisation laws of 1983, municipalities have the authority to establish, develop and operate seaports mainly dedicated to pleasure craft, and they are free to choose how these are managed: under their control or under a concession contract (mixed-ownership company or a private company, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, association etc.), with the marina manager subject to public service obligations.
Marinas, as a key infrastructure of coastal areas, must now be part of a concerted and responsible management of these areas, with a view to sustainable development, by ensuring the quality of port waters, the selective sorting of waste, the recovery of careening products, etc. They are encouraged to adopt the “clean ports” approach initiated by the French Federation of Marinas.
Facilities characterised by their location
Marinas can be classified according to various criteria. According to a classification based on their location in the coastal environment, there are four main types of ports:
- Firstly, ports in naturally sheltered sites. They are located in areas that are naturally sheltered, often in rivers or estuaries. As a result, protective structures are not required or are limited to breakwater pontoons. This reduces the costs of development and the devastating effects on the coastal environment. Construction on land is often minimal.
- Secondly, ports built within pre-existing infrastructure. These are cases where pleasure boating has partially or totally replaced traditional port activities (fishing, trade, and military), either because of their decline or, on the contrary, their expansion requiring the transfer of these activities to larger, more functional sites. The marina takes advantage of the pre-existing equipment (water bodies, dykes, quays, etc.) and only requires the installation of landing stages, thus reducing construction costs. The marina and the surrounding city mutually benefit from the activity generated by each of them. In these cases, marinas benefit from an exceptional location and an often remarkable historical and architectural environment, albeit often lacking in technical spaces.
- Thirdly, ports made up of heavy-duty facilities protruding from the coastline: these are highly functional ports, created especially for pleasure craft, the construction of which has profoundly and definitively transformed the initial site. Their design, extending into the sea, requires large protective dykes. The dredging and rock excavating to form the water basin, as well as the backfilling to build levelled areas, give rise to high construction costs and considerable impact on the coastal environment.
- Lastly, very high-capacity ports, set back from the coast line, often on former marine swamps. Well sheltered, they also benefit from large technical and commercial spaces. In some cases, the ports are designed as part of a large real estate development, often with an accommodation capacity of several thousand beds. These coastal tourist centres composed of a residential complex enclosing a harbour are called marinas in French (the English term “marina” has a broader application, referring to ports for pleasure boats regardless of any additional facilities). There are many of them along the Mediterranean coasts.
The building of large-scale marinas ex nihilo is not necessarily a thing of the past, although these days it is widely called into question: these ports can occasionally be an indispensable connection on a poorly equipped shipping route. However, other solutions will be developed to meet the demand of owners of pleasure craft while respecting, as far as possible, the coastal environment and other uses of the coastline, including: the extension of existing ports, the storage of vessels on land in dry ports, the mooring of vessels in anchorage areas, the conversion of traditional marinas or the repurposing of disused port areas into water sports areas. This conversion should not be seen as an irreversible process: it is very difficult to forecast the development of the maritime economy in the medium and long term. The opening of traditional ports to pleasure boats is probably only one step in a long and complex journey.
- Bernard Nicolas, 2016, Géographie du nautisme. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 341 p.