by Will Henry, Save The Waves Founder and Board President
Quality surfing waves have an enormous social and economic value that is often underestimated by political leaders and businesspeople. The surf apparel industry alone represents annual sales in excess of $8 billion dollars a year. What was once considered a sport for beach bums and dirtbags has become a major industry, with a demographic that has completely changed since its early years. These days, professionals from all walks of life take to the water, bring their families to the beach, and spend top dollar to travel to exotic locations around the world to enjoy the waves. In the United States there are currently over 2 million surfers, according to Action Sports Retailers, twice as many as there were 20 years ago.
A recent New York Times article claims surfing “has emerged as a status sport.” In other words, it is a pasttime not enjoyed solely by penniless wanderers of the globe, but increasingly by people with steady incomes and money to spend. “Surfing has never experienced such worldwide growth and acceptance,” states Paul Naude, CEO of Billabong USA. “It’s up to governments and businesses to recognize surfing as an asset, and to take measures to preserve it.”
The value of a wave, however, is difficult to put into numbers. For example, great surfing waves attract not only surfers but people who enjoy watching the sport. The reputation that a surf spot brings to its neighboring community has tremendous value, but in places where surfing is just gaining popularity, this value is not often recognized or utilized. A perfect example is the island of Madeira, which was once considered one of the premiere surfing destinations in the Atlantic, but did not develop its reputation soon enough. The government, in planning coastal projects, damaged two waves and destroyed one, apparently unaware of their potential as future tourism resources. The wave in Jardim do Mar, once known by Surfer Magazine as “the world’s best (and perhaps only) big wave point break,” was damaged by a seawall that easily could have been designed to spare the wave any harm. (To read about Save the Waves effort to save Jardim do Mar, click here). The island is now experiencing a sharp decline in tourism revenue.
Similarly, a surf spot in Spain known as Mundaka Bay, the site of an annual contest on the ASP World Tour, was damaged in 2005 due to the dredging of the nearby Guernika River. The wave disappeared and the contest was cancelled, and surfers stopped coming to the village. Suddenly business owners were in an uproar, and many went bankrupt. The sudden disappearance of the village’s most precious asset, which many villagers had taken for granted, had a severe negative impact on the local economy.
Certain places in the world have been smart enough to capitalize on their surfing resources. Destinations like Puerto Escondido in Mexico, Bali and the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia, and the Hawaiian Islands in the US, have all experienced huge boosts to their tourism revenues by catering to the surfing crowd. Even Half Moon Bay, California, which previously had little to offer to attract tourists from abroad, was suddenly thrust into international stardom with the discovery of Mavericks, one of the world’s premiere big-wave surfing locations. Now, the annual surf contest held there has become the singlemost important event to their local economy.
Perhaps nowhere in the world has benefitted from surfing as much as the country of Costa Rica. Located in Central America, the county was once as impoverished as its neighbors. In the 1980 ’s and 1990 ’s, encouraged by governmental reforms that provided increased safety and improved infrastructure for travelers, surfers began to travel to Costa Rica in droves, due to its multitude of high quality waves, warm water, and proximity to what was then the world ’s biggest surf market - the United States. Costa Rica often used the image of surfing to promote itself to the world, and now boasts the healthiest economy and highest standard of living in the entire region. This is not to say surfing has been the only driving force in Costa Rica ’s success as a tourism economy, but the sport has inarguably had a positive influence. Here are some statistics from Costa Rica ’s Government Tourism Board:
Surfers Visiting Costa Rica in 2006: 100,278
Average Stay: 17 days
Average Spent per Day: US $122
Approximate Revenue Per Person: US $2074
Approximate Revenue for Costa Rica: US $207,900,000
Population of Costa Rica: 4,400,000
The lesson for governments and developers around the world is: don’t mess with the waves. They are a natural resource that should never, ever be sacrificed. In the words of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, Inc., “natural surf breaks should be treated as world heritage sites, and should never be destroyed no matter what the reason".
Article: Will Henry / Maverick's Surf Contest, Half Moon Bay. Photo: William Henry