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In detail | Responsible Tourism


The challenges of sustainability in surf tourism destinations

Valentina Robledo | Alba Sud

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, surf tourism was seen as an opportunity for many communities in impoverished countries. However, the negative impacts and the challenges of proper management that come with it are still present. The halt of activity around the world should be used to take the time to revise and discuss this model.

Photography by: Andrés Soliño, under Creative Commons license.

For some years now, impoverished coastal countries have found in their waves an opportunity to improve their position in the tourism industry. Indeed, field studies reveal that the surf tourism sector is experiencing increasing growth (Tantamjarik, 2004; Buckley, 2017). Although there is not an exact number, researchers estimate that there are more than 35M surfers around the world and the number keeps growing (O’Brien, 2013). For this reason, studies emphasize the need of rethinking how to operate and manage surf tourism. Especially within host communities (O’Brien, 2013).

According to Buckley (2002), surf tourism occurs when a person has traveled for more than 40km from their home, they spend the night at their destination and spend their leisure time mainly surfing. The surf tourist looks for places that are exotic, virgin, and far from the big cities to find the best waves (Towner, 2016). Once these places are known to surfers, they rapidly become popular to their families, friends, and journalists. The result is a new found interest for the destination among different types of tourists, and this causes growth in the destination (Tantamjarik, 2004).

Surfing is a subculture, and it has its own identity. In general terms, it is characterized by masculinity, white ethnicity, the importance of performance level in the sport, clothing, and its own slang. The surf tourist prefers exotic destinations with no crowd (Krause, 2012; Ponting, 2014; Machado, 2017) and their main motivation during the trip is the quality of the water for surfing (Martin, 2014; Ponting, 2014; Lopes, 2016). At the destination, surfers may cause socio-cultural conflicts for their drug use, alcohol consumption, and engagement in commercial sex work (Krause, 2012). At the same time, they can also contribute to the conservation and sustainability of the destination by using responsibly the resources and participating in social projects to improve the locals’ quality of life (Martin, 2014).

As a strategy for touristic development, surf tourism has advantages that, nonetheless, cannot be separated from the set of challenges that come with it. Surfing may look like an environmentally friendly activity, but selling waves as a touristic product brings environmental, economic, and sociocultural consequences to host communities.

Environmental impacts

The impact surf tourism activity has on the environment will depend on how the destination manages its resources. Deficient management of surf resources may cause crowding, trash, water pollution, erosion, reef damage, environmental deterioration, and pollution from tourists and product transportation. It should be noted that even though the number of surfers keeps growing, surf resources are limited and remain constant. Therefore, the carrying capacity of host communities is directly affected. This can be observed in impoverished countries where some communities have poor water supply systems that cannot provide enough water for tourist consumption. Because of this limitation, some towns have even been forced to use salty water in order to satisfy the demand of the population (Buckley, 2002).

However, according to academic studies, tour-operators of surf tourism can also develop deals that minimize crowding, waste, and negative effects on the ocean and nature (Tantamjarik, 2004). Furthermore, surf tourism development can improve marine resource management in coastal communities (Towner, 2013). Papua New Guinea, is a good example of what may come out of good resource management. Besides being a world-class surfing destination, it is one of the few countries that have tried to manage their surfing resources in a sustainable way. The activity is managed through the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG) along with non-profit organizations, tour operators, and the local community. Stakeholders work and operate under the Surf Management Plan (SMP). According to the SAPNG website “the vast majority of the land ownership is under traditional customary clans”. For coastal communities, this extends to traditional rights and border reef custody. The Surf Management Plans are access agreements that include sustainable quota limits to surf resources in exchange for fees through contests.

However, as Buckley (2017) stands out, this way of managing may result in political conflict in the destination when the interested parties participate in contests that give access rights to the surf resource. Yet, when there is no access restriction to these resources, the companies that are not specialized in surfing are the ones who benefit the most and this might lead to neoliberalism (Ponting, 2014).

Economic impacts

In addition to environmental impacts, surf tourism can also have economic consequences. On the one hand, it may help fight seasonality in destinations with weather conditions that allow year-round surfing, like Madeira in Portugal (Lopes, 2016). Furthermore, the host communities’ economy can benefit from employment generation in the surf tourism sector and other sectors. This is why, in order for them to benefit from the surfing economy, it is important that local communities develop in the sport, and become empowered to work in the sector and lead business generation in the industry or others related.

Source: Matthew Dillon, under Creative Commons license. 

On the other hand, the negative economic consequences for local communities also need to be taken into consideration. One of these impacts is the tension between locals and foreign tour-operators due to surf tourism development. This happens in two scenarios: when locals work for these companies and feel like second-hand citizens in their own country, and when tour-operators attempt to control the access to surf breaks in order to maximize their profits. It is also important to mention that most of the money from the all-inclusive packages of surfing tourist experiences goes directly to foreign companies and, according to research on this topic, it does not benefit the local communities (Ponting, 2015; Towner 2013, 2016, 2018; Machado, 2017). In some communities like Nicaragua or the Mentawai Islands surf tourism does cause seasonality, meaning that tourism workers lose their jobs in low season.

Sociocultural impacts

Surf tourism can also positively impact a host community at a sociocultural level. For instance, in impoverished countries where surf tourism is growing, the activity may reduce the number of youth joining gangs by facilitating the participation in the management of the activity (Ponting; 2014), and offering a healthier lifestyle (O’Brien, 2013). This can happen through the creation of alliances among governments, non-profit organizations, tourist companies, communities, and surfers. Besides, the surf industry growth generates infrastructure development in the areas where the sport is practiced (Tantamjarik, 2004; Lemarié, 2019).

But, just like before, there are also socio-cultural challenges to keep in mind. In countries like Costa Rica, the Mentawai Islands, or the Indopacific Islands, the growth of this industry and the coastal areas’ development have increased the migration of population to the beaches, especially of foreign people that can afford to pay higher prices for their real estate. In the long run, this migration results in locals moving to live in the periphery of their towns because they cannot afford to pay the housing prices on their own shores.

The arrival of foreign tourists may also cause cultural difficulties between the tourists and the local community. These tensions occur due to socioeconomic class differences and tourists’ disrespect to local’s beliefs and traditions (Ponting, 2014; Towner, 2018; Mach, 2018). The problem is that most of the time, the surf tourist brings their own culture to the destination and ignores the host culture (Usher, 2015).

In addition to these socio-cultural issues, surf tourism can trigger localism in the destination. Local surfers tend to have a strong sense of belonging. This may make them try to exclude visitor surfers from surf breaks so they can have control of the waves and the territory. To do so, locals define territory limits and regulate behavior within surf breaks. Sometimes this phenomenon may involve oral arguments and even physical violence between local surfers and visitors (Usher, 2016).

This is important because it is very likely that host countries have multiethnic populations, macho cultures, and high rates of violence and crime. Therefore, those who aim to manage surf tourism as a responsible and sustainable tourist activity, should focus first on solving their existing social problems, and, only after doing so, formulate tourism strategies that prevent these incidents from happening.

Things to keep in mind for the management of surf tourism

Within Richard Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle, surf tourism appears in the exploratory phase of a new destination (Krause, 2012; Usher, 2014). This occurs because the surfer looks for exotic destinations with no crowds. When word of the new place spreads among surfers (Tantamjarik, 2004), it starts to get attention from other types of tourists and the destination grows quickly. For this reason, studies warn about the need of planning surf tourism management in the exploratory phase. They also suggest deepening the analysis of tourist behavior and host communities, using ethnography to minimize the negative impacts on the community.

According to academic literature, crowding is one of the main negative impacts of surf tourism. It not only impacts the environment, but also the sociocultural dimension of communities. On that matter, studies in Costa Rica (Tantamjarik, 2004), the Mentawai Islands (Towner, 2013), and Italy (Fadda, 2019), agree that diversifying tourist products is one way of fighting crowding. Socioculturally speaking this strategy helps to involve the locals in crafts, gastronomic, and cultural activities, improving the overall tourist experience by inviting them to meet the local culture and, at the same time, reallocating tourist concentration in other activities. This strategy also helps to develop other touristic areas in the destinations.

Surf tourism brings benefits and challenges at an environmental, economic, and sociocultural level to territories that specialize in it. The stakeholders in surf destinations are responsible for being cautious in taking actions that consider the countries’ context so that their strategies can be sustainable. In a special way, crowding should be fought with a touristic policy based on sustainability, one that sets limits to growth and respects the carrying capacity of coastal communities. If this is not confronted properly, surf resources may be damaged beyond repair, to the point where beaches are no longer attractive for surfers. This would inevitably end up with surfers visiting other destinations, and, in a worst case scenario, reproduce the issues that drove them away in the first place.


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This article is based on the Master’s Thesis of Valentina Robledo, “The challenges of sustainability in a surf tourism destination: El Salvador”, from the Master’s degree on Touristic Companies Management - Responsible and Sustainable Tourism provided by CETT-UB, under the tutoring of Ernest Cañada.

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