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Surf Tourism: The Good, the Bad, and the Waves


That’s a term Leon Mach has used to describe surf tourism. “Colonizing in the sense that surf tourism often arrives first to remote coastal areas and effectively takes over the development process,” says Mach, the co-founder of SeaState, a program that offers courses related to sustainability in several countries. “Often this entails rapid development and unplanned development to cater to tourist desires.”

Colonizing also serves an appropriate term because – in Latin America, at least – surf tourism is an industry in which the authority figures are largely white people from the Global North. Despite palpable economic benefits gained by locals in some cases, the lion’s share of revenue remains in the pockets of those guests. According to La Prensa Libre, surfers represent roughly a quarter of annual visitors to Costa Rica, and contribute roughly $800 million each year to the national GDP. However, very little of that money reaches the Costa Rican people.

Surf tourism as an industry

Unfortunately, the surfing industry hasn’t always enhanced communities socially, economically and environmentally. Jock Serong, editor of Great Ocean Quarterly, once wrote that “surfers have degraded the island of Bali beyond recognition”. Plus the long distances many surfers travel often result in a massive carbon footprint.

“[The carbon footprint is] something that has always niggled at us a company because our business model relies on our guests flying great distances to reach us,” says Travis Bays, co-founder of Bodhi Surf + Yoga in Costa Rica.

Making surf tourism more sustainable should be a priority for many considering how lucrative the industry is. The global market for surfing will likely reach $9.5 billion by 2022 while surfers have injected $2.5 billion into the U.S. coastal economy. But despite the revenue surf tourism brings, it is generally not considered in coastal management plans. This means that it often develops as an uncontrolled and free-market industry, growing unlimitedly and restricting the involvement of host communities, according to researcher Christin Radtke, who has studied surf tourism in the United Kingdom.

Benefits of surf tourism

Despite these challenges, surf tourism can bring a large number of benefits  – and not just financial ones.

“Many of the local inhabitants of our smaller coastal towns would never have otherwise had the opportunity to meet people from other parts of the world,” says Tracy Roberts, the Marketing & Communications officer for Saffa Surf Tours, a South African tour operator.

Copyright: Leon Mach

Surf tourism can benefit people in the long term, Roberts adds. “The benefits of getting local children from informal settlements into the surfing lifestyle are undeniable. Surfing is a much healthier alternative to the norms they experience in their settlements, like gangsterism, alcoholism, violence and drugs.”

Some of those children introduced to surfing through foreign visitors can be found at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. “Since our inception in 2010, we have been running Service & Surf Saturday events, which aim to teach local youth about surfing, the ocean and the importance of working together to take care of our park and community,” Bays states. “We’ve had a blast with these events and we’ve even seen some of our past attendees (whom we helped teach years ago) out in the water nowadays!”

“Surf tourism is a sustainable resource,” says John Finlay, the director of World Surfaris. He refers to the Tupira Surf Club in Papua New Guinea. “There used to be extensive logging in the area. They stopped that & established the surf club club instead.”

Indeed, the Tupira Surf Club is the brainchild of Justice Nicholas Kirriwon, and it grew from his desire to help his home region financially. He met the club’s initial costs and covered its shortfalls. The Tupira Surf Club is not operated like a typical corporation – instead, it is a collective enterprise run by local villagers.

The environment can also prosper from surf tourism done correctly, as has been the case in Queensland, Australia. “With the popularity of Noosa spreading worldwide as a surfing venue, the shoreline and national park have been recognized and protected as one of only ten World Surfing Reserves, meaning that the region isn’t in any danger of overdevelopment, excess fishing or environment damage,” Thomas Alexander, media manager of the Noosa Festival of Surfing, says.

Of course, you have to ensure that your destination can withstand a horde of visitors whose arrival doesn’t cause tension. Alexander describes the growth of Noosa as a surf destination as being “bittersweet”. “Locals, of course, complain that the waves get crowded.”

Further south, Great Ocean Road Surf Tours have taken steps to ensure local residents are happy. “We ensure we’re licensed to be able to conduct our tours on those beaches,” Elise Mangan, the Australian tour company’s Operations Manager, says. “Our locations are decided based on the time of the year (regarding public traffic on beaches), weather, swell and tide conditions, and animal protection areas on beaches.”

Surfers as responsible tourists

But are surfers generally conscious of responsible tourism issues? That depends on whom you ask.

“In short, and sadly, no,” says Alexander. “I do believe that with the surfing community at large, environmental are more recognized than most other communities or demographics, but it is still only a ripple.”

Alex Jean is more optimistic though. As the president of Surf Haiti, he has witnessed large numbers of foreign guests come to his Caribbean nation to participate in surf tours and he believes those visitors are emotionally invested in the well-being of Haiti and its people.

“Many of the locals are happy to have foreign visitors,” Jean says. In addition to the economic benefits those surfers bring,  he says there are also intangible benefits, like education and awareness raising.

“Foreigners teach Haitian tourists many things – such as how to keep the ocean clean,” adds Jean. “Foreign tourists help instill a sense of hard work.”

How do you convince visitors to take more than a passing interest in a destination? By making them feel at home. “If tourists feel Haiti is their home, they’re more likely to protect the area,” Jean believes. “If they have a good relationship with the country, they’re more likely to come.”

Education can play a major part in rendering surf tourism more sustainable. Leon Mach has witnessed enormous changes in his students through the Engaged Global Citizenship courses offered in Panama by SeaState to high school students. Through this program, students have the opportunity to participate in community service programs and work with community organizations in the country.

“The [course] is designed to have students interact with local people their age in another country and also to participate in projects run by non-profit organizations working to foster sustainable development,” Mach says. “The goal is to have students appreciate different cultures and want to be a part of solutions to global social and environmental problems.”

As a result of the two-credit course, “Students [are developing] a more global mindset and [devoting] more time to thinking about sustainability issues,” he adds.


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