SURFERS LOVE TO ROAM, BUT HOW DO WE HELP PRESERVE THE CULTURES WE ENCOUNTER ALONG THE WAY?
Featured in Tracks Magazine
Travel is dying. Not as an industry – although COVID certainly didn’t do it any favours – but as a concept. While it’s never been easier to set off halfway across the world (lockdowns excluded), it’s becoming increasingly challenging to experience a destination’s culture. Instead, travellers are force-fed curated versions of a culture that’s a mere shell of its Indigenous self.
Similarly, surf travel has changed exponentially in the last decade. Its seemingly permanent association with wellness travel has created a boom where demand outweighs supply, and the currency is natural resources. Carefully crafted marketing campaigns hide cookie-cutter travel experiences behind a veil of catchy slogans and marketing jargon that promise, ‘one of a kind’, ‘bespoke’, or ‘artisan’ experiences. In reality, what’s being sold are duplications of our own cultures plastered over coastal communities in developing countries. For Australia, the Indonesian Archipelago provides a convenient gateway to unapparelled adventure amongst some of the best waves on the planet. For Americans, Central America offers access to the abundant power of the Pacific scattered along various black sand beaches, lengthy point breaks, and reef passes. The Indonesian Archipelago and the nations that comprise Central America are considered developing countries and have seen a sharp spike in surf tourism in recent years. Tracing the growth of surf tourism in each area reveals a boom-and- bust cycle that overpowers even the best- intentioned sustainable development models. Can COVID’s non-consensual travel pause grant us the opportunity to change how we approach surf travel?
When I landed in Costa Rica in early June, for a moment, it seemed like the pandemic had vanished. Other than the masks on our faces, the Liberia airport was its usual self. The squeak of croc-shoe-adorned, fishing- shirt-clad Floridians followed me as I crept towards immigration. I had been here before, nearly every year for the last half-decade to guide trips, but not to surf. While I’ve enjoyed my share of Costa Rican waves, I tend to look elsewhere in Central America due to Costa Rica’s immense popularity. This time around, I’d hoped the pandemic paranoia might have thinned the crowds. Having wrapped up a lengthy jaunt around the uncrowded beaches of Northern Nicaragua, I was eager to test the waters of Costa Rica in what I assumed would be a similarly uncrowded pandemic wonderland.
Like Indo, Costa Rica began receiving an influx of tourists in the late 20th century. Travellers, many of whom were surfers, sought out Indo and Costa Rica for their natural beauty, their relative isolation compared to more well-trekked destinations, and their waves. After the conclusion of the nation’s civil war and the completion of Bali’s international airport in 1968, Indonesian surf travel inched into the mainstay of surf culture in the 70s. Indonesia, specifically Bali, was an often-overlooked stop on the hippie trail where, for a few years, lucky visitors enjoyed the splendours of the Indian Ocean far removed from the tourist masses. Bali’s modern bohemian image can be traced back to the original travellers on the hippie trail.
While nomadic bohemians embraced the Island of the Gods, it was the naturalists and biologists who drew attention to Costa Rica’s mountainous jungles and tropical beaches, in the 60s. These scientists were enamored by the fact that a tiny speck on the globe that makes up 3% of the earth’s surface contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Despite being worlds apart, the Costa Rican and Indonesian authorities made a similar realisation around the same time in the late 70s. They each concluded that tourism could be harmful and should be managed in a way that promotes local culture (Indo) and protects the country’s valuable natural resources (Costa Rica). Their concept of sustainability in tourism was far ahead of its time. Meanwhile, sustainable tourism development, as we know it, came to be in 2002, when the concept was introduced at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. However, back in the 70s, Costa Rica had already created its national park system, which protects approximately 25% of the county’s landscape. Shortly after, in the early 80s, the government disbanded the army, which freed up funds for developing infrastructure, education, and social programs. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, President Suharto made the bold decision to add 4,800 new hotel rooms to Bali, which raised alarm bells for local leaders. To protect the island’s unique culture, the Balinese began to push the idea of ‘cultural tourism’, which promoted temple visits, religious ceremonies, and traditional dance performances in lieu of umbrella drinks and poolside parties. Although thousands of kilometres apart and buttressed by different oceans, in the wake of a tourism push, both Bali and Costa Rica both set out to preserve what they perceived to be of utmost value to their respective societies.
Leaving the strip mall hellscape, urban sprawl that is Liberia, Costa Rica, I made my way through the northern reaches of the country towards my destination, Nosara. As we approached the coast, I was pleasantly surprised by the density of the surrounding jungle and the fact that mountain peaks, and not towering resorts, met the horizon in the distance. I had been to Nosara years before when the main stretch of beach contained just a few hotels scattered through the wilderness, and the inland town was home to mainly agricultural workers. I had heard stories of a new wellness hub funded in part by a Johnson and Johnson heir in Nosara and rumors of multimillion-dollar land evaluations. Despite this development, Nosara was nothing like other coastal tourist hubs in Costa Rica, Jaco and Tamarindo. While it may have been done in a ‘sustainable’ manner, Nosara had experienced rapid growth. The area was now home to 30 hotels, 47 surf schools, dozens of restaurants, yoga studios, gyms, and juice bars. Nosara was a far cry from the remote beaches of Northern Nicaragua, where I had spent the past six weeks. Many see Nicaragua as what Costa Rica was 20 years ago. Due to a history of political instability, Nicaragua lacks the gravitational pull on travellers that its southern neighbour, Costa Rica, boasts. As I drove by a yoga studio and juice bar, I wondered how long until the minute fishing villages of Nicaragua were populated by the latest health and wellness trends.
The second wave of tourism development in Costa Rica and Indonesia brought about growth at an unexpected rate. The 90s and 2000s marked the rise and fall of the once great surf towns of Jaco and Tamarindo, and the creation of Kuta as we know it today. In the 1990s, Bali saw an unprecedented level of resources dedicated to the island’s tourism industry. During this boom, Nirwana Bali Golf Club was constructed overlooking the temple Pura Tanah Lot. The construction forced local farmers off their land and turned religious ceremonies at Pura Tanah Lot into cultural peep shows for golfers, marking the shift from cultural tourism to mass tourism.
Like Kuta in Bali, Jaco is the most readily accessible stretch of coastline from the capital and largest airport, and consequently it was a hub for early development. Jaco boomed and bustled far before my time. I was in diapers when the town transformed from a peaceful coastal getaway to a seedy party hub. Like so many surf destinations before it, and inevitably many after it, Jaco grew too quickly.
As is the common story of countless destinations around the world, the influx of foreign travellers and expatriates increased the costs of land and goods, pricing out many of the local inhabitants. Stuck in stagnant service industry careers without the opportunity for upward mobility, many locals turned to drugs and sex work to capitalise on the booming tourism economy. Today, Jaco is looked upon in the surf industry as the kind of blown out scenario you wish to avoid.
While the rest of Costa Rica is celebrated for its pristine natural wonders, at the height of its popularity Jaco felt dirty, meanwhile its hills are littered with gaudy high-rise condominiums and hotels. Despite the obvious negative impacts of Jaco’s hasty growth, it seemed little was learned by the experience and the same forces conspired to send Tamarindo down a similar path about a decade later.
To further understand Tamarindo’s development, I reached out to Forrest Minchinton, the son of renowned board maker Mike Minchinton whose legendary shapes carried Robert August atop many of the waves he rode in the ‘Endless Summer’ movies. Forrest spent his formative years growing up in Tamarindo and later would split time between Costa Rica and California. Today, Forrest shapes boards and is the owner of House of Somos, a surf and shaping resort in Santa Teresa that prioritises fine surf crafts and motorcycle exploration. Growing up, Forrest witnessed Tamarindo transform from a small town, where, 15 years ago, he knew everyone by name, to a bustling tourist hub that very much followed the path of Jaco. After it featured in ‘Endless Summer II, Tamarindo’s growth quickened, and soon it was a resort town. As was the case in Jaco, the construction of a marina near Tamarindo made the area a sports fishing and general tourism hub. After the construction of numerous resorts, surfers began looking elsewhere in Costa Rica for waves.
Other locations in Costa Rica, like Santa Teresa, and Nosara, have been developed under sustainable tourism guidelines that have prevented duplications of the swift growth that occurred in Jaco and Tamarindo. Under these guidelines, eco-tourism is heavily promoted, and regulations prevent building on or near the beach. The results have been tremendous in terms of environmental protection and restoration. In fact, Costa Rica is a global leader in land protection, deforestation reversal, and conservation. From an environmental perspective, Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism model has been hugely successful. Nearly all hotels in the country follow some type of sustainable guidelines, and according to the Global Ecotourism Network, “80% of the hotels in Costa Rica have 20 rooms or less.” Forrest was quick to point out that tourism has done wonders for the Costa Rican economy. According to David Matarrita-Cascante of Texas A&M University, writing in the Review of Tourism Research, “Earnings from tourism between 1996 and 2006 grew around 9% annually. By the 21st century, tourism had become the second-largest foreign earning activity and represented 7% of the GDP in 2006.” Since the mid-70s, Costa Rica has seen nearly a 600% increase in tourism.
Regardless of what protections are in place, growth on that level is bound to disrupt local communities and economies. In Santa Teresa, Forrest and the House of Somos team work on micro solutions to address the shortcomings of sustainable tourism, like creating a water treatment facility to reduce waste runoff, promoting locally owned businesses, and increasing community incentives to participate in community betterment projects.
Like Tamarindo and Jaco, it didn’t take long for Bali to become a saturated surf destination. When the island no longer held the allure of uncrowded waves, surf travellers explored the Indonesian Archipelago further. Java, Lombok, Sumba and Sumbawa all bore fruit before the Mentawai Islands off West Sumatra emerged as Indo’s promised land for surfers. As in Bali before it, the Mentawai Islands saw a sharp uptick in tourism after the discovery of quality surf. By this point in the early 2000s, the stakeholders involved in the region’s tourism industry sought to implement sustainable tourism development to avoid the usual trappings of overdevelopment. According to a doctoral study by the University of Auckland focusing on sustainable tourism in the Mentawai Islands, sustainable tourism development is based on, “The premise that the industry should develop in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable manner that will benefit local communities.” While the idea seems admirable and relatively straightforward, it’s often oversimplified and tends to have a narrow focus on environmental issues while failing to address the deeper issue of tourism’s harmful influence on communities and local culture. With 23 million estimated global surfers, the surf tourism industry is worth over $8 billion USD. There’s no denying the benefits tourism can have for a community. To say that the influx of capital, job creation, and the introduction of surf lifestyle careers to coastal communities is life-changing would be a gross understatement. The majority of Mentawai people live in poverty. In 2002, Steve Barilotti, while reporting for The Surfer’s Journal, found that the average copra (dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained) harvester earned at most AU$30 a month. In 2008, SurfAid International found that child mortality rates were as high as 93 out of 1000 births, and 41.1% of children under five years of age were malnourished. So, the introduction of surf tourism to the region should provide much-needed stimulus to the local economy. However, unlike Costa Rica, many Indigenous Mentawai communities have low education levels, which prevents them from fully participating in the tourism sector.
Due to the limited participation of local populations, their roles in the surf tourism industry are typically limited to the service industry, with little room for upward mobility without proper education. After surveying several businesses in Nosara, Costa Rica, I found that many of the managerial positions in the town were occupied by workers from the capital, San Jose, not the coast. Additionally, out of the over 30 hotel options in Nosara, not a single one is locally owned. The influx of foreign workers and the introduction of a new wealthy elite class of foreign employers may have created an illusion of economic stimulus, in reality, the system creates economic leakages where the money generated through tourism leaves the country in the pockets of foreign business owners and workers.
Not only does this style of development create a clear distinction between the foreign employer class and the local employee class, but it creates unintentional cultural whitewashing of the destination. This class divide of Western expatriates and the local workforce is nothing new – it’s been prominent in developing countries since the height of colonialism. Now instead of seeking refuge in old fashioned colonial clubs for nights of snooker and bottomless G&Ts, western expatriates stick to Bali beach clubs and health and wellness centres.
The fact that in many places in Bali and Costa Rica, it’s easier to find a chia seed infused smoothie bowl than a cheap local meal poses a serious threat to cultural preservation. Additionally, it leads to the gentrification of coastal areas and a rising cost of goods that out price locals earning service industry wages. The emergence of wellness travel that seems to always arrive in the wake of surf travel has resulted in cultural transplantation in developing areas. Some neighborhoods and retail spaces in Bali and Costa Rica now resemble locations in Australia and Southern California, overshadowing cultural roots in the process. If left unchecked, travel and surf culture could completely supplant local culture and customs. Reliance on foreign workers and backpacker surf instructors perpetuates the issue and creates a situation where blonde surf instructors from Florida, who are way too comfortable flirting with your girlfriend, take paying jobs from locals. As a writer who does a hefty amount of digital marketing for surf hotels, I have participated in a similar barter system. While my work is not directly removing local jobs from the economy, I fully understand the draw of trading work for the opportunity to surf and travel the world. The introduction of this expatriate social class can be disruptive to the existing social structures within a coastal community. The lack of integration of expatriates tends to heighten already problematic issues of wage inequality in coastal communities.
As a destination increases in popularity, especially when done at a breakneck pace, the tourism industry shifts from supply-driven to demand-driven. Understanding this shift is paramount to tracking the failures of the current sustainable tourism model. Matarrita- Cascante states that, “[A] country’s emphasis during this current stage [of development] has shifted from providing tourists with an authentic local and natural experience to catering to particular needs and demands of tourists.” This occurrence is a direct result of a, “Complex set of dynamics in which natural resources and authentic experiences [are] juxtaposed with [the] aggressive promotion of foreign investment seeking infrastructure development and large-scale tourism enterprises.”
As I explored Northern Costa Rica and surfed every wave I could find, travelling by car, boat, and tuk-tuk to avoid the congestion at overly touristy beaches, I wondered if this was what was in store for Northern Nicaragua. Northern Nicaragua is an area I’ve become increasingly fond of as I travel more and appreciate its rare combination of quality surf and cultural authenticity. To find out what was being done to check the harmful effects of overdevelopment in Nicaragua, I phoned Jonathan Griffin, the owner of Thunderbomb Surf Camp. Our conversation touched on the surf entrepreneur’s dilemma, which is the difficulty of striking a balance between living out your greatest surf fantasy and, at the same time, preserving the sanctity of a place and its natural resources. The only solution to the surf entrepreneur’s conundrum is to promote the local community as much as possible along the way. Jonathan does this by keeping 100% local staff and investing in his workers by providing English lessons and even helping fund their education, so that they may have upward mobility in their careers. Creating a class of local entrepreneurs and managerial level employees, and setting wages based on the local inflation rates, not the national minimum wage, is vital to ensuring the sustainable development of a surf destination.
In Northern Nicaragua, Jonathan has partnered with his local manager to open a hostel near the area’s famed beach break, thus making his manager, German, the youngest business owner in the area. So, what can a traveller do to promote sustainability and help preserve the coastal communities that make up our favourite surf destinations?
As a stakeholder in the tourism sector, the solution is complex and unclear at times, but as a consumer, the least you can do is support locally owned businesses and establishments with local staff, and look beyond a brand’s claims of sustainability, while considering how their presence impacts the community.
The wellness industry may have hijacked the sustainability message, but those working towards true sustainability are looking at the big picture to tackle environmental and social issues together. To understand how environmental sustainability can coexist with social responsibility, I turned to Luke Swainson and Jane Dunlop, who own and operate Mahi-Mahi Resort on the island of Simeulue and āluān, a sustainable coconut company that partners with over 1000 local coconut farmers. Unlike most surf resort founders, Luke and Jane began as environmentalists and founded a resort to execute and fund their environmental protection goals. Luke and Jane brought their vision for conservation to Simeulue after a project working on post-tsunami land rights issues in Ache lost funding during the 2008 financial crisis. What Luke and Jane found with their work in Simeulue was, “Stand- alone conservation without thinking about what communities [and] what government decision-makers want [is] not going to have the [desired] effect you’re after.” Unlike their previous project that focused on an entire province, they turned their attention to the flyspeck island of Simeulue. In doing so, Jane and Luke showcased the full potential of sustainable development and green job creation. Working towards their sustainability goals in Simeulue, they employ, partner with, and empower the local community and economy by creating jobs in commercial industries with existing markets including surf tourism. Mahi-Mahi and āluān demonstrate that actively promoting an area’s social wellbeing helps facilitate large- scale environmental success. According to Luke, “Unless you’re creating jobs and economic opportunism in those landscapes, you’re not going to have a positive environmental impact at the end of the day.” The over-arching point being sustainability in hospitality should go beyond permaculture gardens and compost bins and address the community’s needs as well as those of the environment.
Sitting in the lineup in Playa Guiones, trading waves with a 100 of my closest friends, I looked at the surrounding hills and the rocky points that jutted out to sea like lances driving through the breakwater in admiration. Costa Rica has had a remarkable level of success in preserving its natural wonders, and of all the surf destinations in the world, Costa Rica has perhaps been the most successful in its implementation of sustainable tourism development. But when compared to Bali, the Mentawai Islands, and other established surf destinations, one can’t help but draw parallels that highlight the inadequacies of the current sustainable tourism development model to fully address community issues. Surfers are the harbingers of mass tourism. Wherever we seem to go, the masses eventually follow, and in their wake, both the harmful effects and benefits of tourism ensue. As the group that introduces these cultures to such a dynamic force, we have a social responsibility to help preserve a community’s culture and customs. Protecting a destination’s ecology is critical to ensuring its survival and longevity. What is the value of a travel destination without the culture and people that make it worth visiting in the first place?