The Making of a Surf Ghetto

The dream: travel to a remote, unexplored coastline in search of quality, uncrowded waves. Discover a world-class surf spot or series of breaks, where the waves are plentiful, the surfers few, the beer cheap, and the living easy. Buy some inexpensive surf-front property, build your dream house overlooking the break, and live happily ever after, right?

The reality: the property you buy is disputed by neighbors or former land owners or, worse yet, the “owner” who sold you the property has already sold the same land to two other buyers. The caretaker you hire to look after the place, resenting an invasion of foreigners into his town, moves his family on the property and claims “squatters’ rights.” Then, in a few years, your idealistic uncrowded surf break becomes a well-known international surf destination, and the surrounding town transforms into a full-on surf ghetto, complete with overcrowding, crime, drugs, and fights between locals and foreigners. Such are the pitfalls of “surf imperialism” within the third world.

When Hernan Cortes first landed on the shores of the Americas over five hundred years ago, he was originally greeted with open arms by Montezuma and the Aztec kingdom. The Spaniards for their part brought with them the wonderful gifts of disease, Christianity, and brute force to bestow upon both the Mayan and Aztec Indians. Little did the Indians know at the time what fate awaited them, as Cortes and his army conquered the Aztec empire just a few short years later in a brutal bloody war.

While the Conquistadors may have been searching for their version of wealth and power, the traveler today searches for riches in the form of unspoiled beauty. A fundamental law in our modern travel-happy world: desirable destinations will be discovered, and then colonized by paradise-seeking imperialists of the economically advantaged order. Nowhere is this more apparent than with surf destinations.

I visited a fledgling surf spot down in Latin America recently. You know the one: warm water, clean uncrowded waves, friendly people. I’ve been visiting the tiny fishing village for the last ten years or so. However, as with most desirable surf havens in modern times, development has taken root within this unassuming community, and is quickly transforming it into a tourist-friendly enclave. What was once an isolated, hard-to-reach outpost reserved for only the most hardcore traveling surfers is now a worldwide attraction complete with “surf camps,” restaurants, surf tours, boats, and other amenities. It’s now well publicized through magazines and web sites, easy to get to, and frequented by the surfing masses. The town itself is currently teetering on the brink of full-scale development. How it evolves from here—sleepy eco-tourism location with moderately crowded waves or hectic international resort with rampant, uncontrolled development—has yet to be determined. However, one thing is for certain: it will change, and most likely not for the better.

Surfers themselves are modern day explorers. The singular motivation? To discover high-quality, deserted waves. Perhaps no other group with the possible exception of ocean sailors is as motivated to explore remote, uncharted coastline and waters. The reward: to realize hidden, undiscovered treasure in the form of waves. Your own private surf hideaway, reserved for you and your closest friends. But be sure to keep the secret. For with today’s global network of surfers connected together like never before by modern communication, all it takes is one whisper, one little slip in a dark cantina over a beer, and the cover is blown. The wheels will be set in motion: first the disclosure of the name, next the location, and soon the first visit by others. Every new caller then tells a few friends who are “sworn to secrecy” (oh, how many times we have heard that one before). Eventually, a magazine or video producer gets wind of the spot, and the gold rush is on. It makes no difference that the publication keeps the name anonymous. Word gets out through the international surf network, the original “coconut wires” that are now lubricated by Internet, mobile phone, and fax. Photos and video merely serve as physical evidence—the “goods” so to speak.

Enterprising locals and/or foreigners then begin to set up small businesses, such as restaurants and lodging. These amenities, in turn, open the area up to a whole new set of vacationing surfers, and the entire process accelerates rapidly. Next come the surf camps, surf tours, advertising, web sites, additional media exposure, and voila—you have the potential for the full-blown surf ghetto.

But what actually causes a particular location to develop into a downwardly spiraling surf barrio, as opposed to merely a well-known, pleasant, if not crowded, surfing destination? I have visited and watched over the years many pristine areas develop for the worse: Puerto Escondido, Tamarindo, and Los Cabos to name a few. Although every area has its own unique characteristics that affect its development, there are some common factors that contribute to both positive and negative growth within a surfing environment.

First and perhaps foremost, the overall quality of the wave greatly impacts development. Indeed, for surfers, this is the original draw of the location to begin with. For one who does not surf, it’s hard to imagine the undeniable appeal of one “great” wave over another. How could there really be that much difference, this from the non-surfer, in surfing locations? Yet there are remote waves that become legend in the surfer psyche even before they are visited. Power, size, shape, consistency, plus any number of intangible qualities, all combine to produce an attraction that can border on obsession. A world-class surfing location will entice surfers from around the planet, who are drawn to match their skills against a wave that reportedly “delivers the goods.” The wave will dictate the amount and type of surfers who travel to any given location, dramatically affecting the pace and nature of an area as it changes.

In addition, the abundance or accessibility of other surf in the area can add or detract from the primary surf spot and surrounding area. Other decent waves nearby serve as a safety valve for overcrowding, and significantly ease tensions. Less accomplished surfers, for example, might have options at other, inferior waves in the area that may even be better suited to their ability. The promise of further exploration can also relieve pressure at the primary spot, as the more adventurous will continue to seek out remote locales. An example of a destination without such a safety valve might be Lagundi Bay on the tiny Indonesian island of Nias. Although there are other waves in the area, they are difficult to reach once camped out at this tiny community. The wave only holds a limited number of surfers, and is reportedly inconsistent. Overcrowding, which has become a problem at Lagundi Bay and its surrounding village, has led to increased crime, pollution, and tension in the water at this once idyllic outpost.

The local population, to the extent there is one, also influences the destiny of a particular locale. Whether or not there is a local surfing population may shape the way foreign surfers are treated, as well as their status within the community. If there are originally no local surfers, you can be certain that once they see the funny foreigners playing in the waves, it won’t be long before the first locals begin experimenting in the water. As you might imagine, the revelation that their particular coastline is in fact a desirable destination to an international sub-culture can come as quite a curiosity to many third world fishing villages. Locals can of course also plan, manage, or restrict growth, for better or for worse. In many cases, it is the lack of planning or the transfer of planning to outside forces that results in less-than-optimal development.

The early pioneers of a remote surf discovery greatly contribute to the quality of the development process. If, for example, Cortes and his men had been of, say, a slightly different disposition (i.e., not imperialistic murderers), development within central Mexico might have taken a dramatically different turn. So, too, goes international surf discovery. The first surfers to arrive in a strange new land leave lasting impressions both with the locals as well as the surfers who are to follow. If the early explorers decide to settle in the newfound area, their presence and demeanor is that much more influential with respect to the inevitable changes that are to come.

Finally, the attraction of an area to non-surfers or for non-surfing activities imposes additional pressures to develop. Expanding a site’s appeal to a broader audience only serves to accelerate growth. In fact most surfing regions that see out of control growth are ones that also appeal to the non-surfer. The Kuta Beach area on Bali for instance, with its beautiful beaches and exotic culture, has allured surfers, travelers, and tourists alike. Amid all the trappings of modern-day western tourism, many believe the area represents a true paradise lost.

With the inevitable development of pristine third world surfing areas, it seems the only way to protect many of them from devastation may be to restrict access. Although this ultimately goes contrary to the surf explorer’s code, the few examples of restricted access have resulted in protection of both the surfing resources as well as the surrounding environment. Tavarua, Fiji is the marquee case study, restricting access to the island’s reefs and waves to paying guests only. The resort is expensive by most surfers’ standards, yet this economic model has allowed the business to in turn pour a substantial amount of money back into the Fijian community. This represents a far cry from the more common scenario of pure exploitation of people and assets.

The rub, of course, is that this type of model limits the use of resources to a select few, based primarily on economics—the traditional public versus private access debate. Golf courses and ski resorts also “protect” the areas they promote for recreation, yet exclude large portions of the population by virtue of cost. Surfing was born in—and has long operated within—the public domain, and one can only hope it can continue to do so. But with the rampant development surfers can bring to an otherwise sleepy, third world coastline, the question remains whether the search for perfect, uncrowded surf ultimately results in more harm than good. Ironically, while the pursuit of surfing nirvana may in fact be an innocent ideal, in mass it often results in the destruction of the very same unspoiled paradise so highly coveted by the international surf traveler.

Get some waves. – DL

[Author's note: For an expanded discussion on the topic, please see Steve Barilotti's story, "Lost Horizons: Surf Colonialism in the 21st Century" in this month's Surfer's Journal (Volume 11 Number 3). The article offers an excellent essay on the socio-economic impacts of modern-day surf travel. This DTL column was originally written prior to publication of the Surfer's Journal article.]

(8/13/02)

Related posts: