Turning The Tides On Sustainable Surf Tourism

Harrison Roach, at home on the nose.    Photo: Dodds

Harrison Roach, at home on the nose. Photo: Dodds


Two weeks ago, surfers from all around the world celebrated ‘International Surf Day’. This year’s theme, ‘Protect and Enjoy’ aimed to raise awareness towards environmental issues threatening coastal areas such as offshore oil drilling and plastic pollution. The day brought thousands together, participating in beach cleanups as a part of giving back to the marine environment which they themselves rely on so heavily. During International Surf Day, Kelly Slater, one of surfing’s biggest names explained the unique relationship between surfers and the ocean, saying "The ocean is all of our livelihoods and basically life to us. I don't know what we'd be doing without the ocean. It just brings so much joy to people” (Kelly Slater) Surfing’s connection to environmentalism is imbedded in the very origins of the sport, however it has not always been a healthy relationship. Since surfing’s humble beginning in California and Hawaii, it has gone through tremendous growth, becoming a gigantic industry worth millions of dollars. As a result, its environmental footprint has grown, creating huge issues for marine ecosystems. With the industry growing so quickly, few within it have stopped to look at its impact, reflect, and remind each other of why they fell in love with surfing in the first place. It has only been in recent years that surfing has returned to its roots and begun to create a path of sustainability, both individually and collectively.


During the birth of the surfing ‘golden era’ in the late 1960s, surf culture in America evolved to capture the free-thought and hedonistic attitudes of a post war society. Surfers were establishing an identity of non conformity and resistance to modern American values of materialism and consumerism. At the same time America was being swept with one of the worlds largest and provocative social movements: the environmental movement. The two groups both critical of current politics and concerned for the natural world, formed a strong relationship leading to immense environmental change. Surfing’s environmental awakening spurred surfers to raise awareness to environmental issues and support environmental policy. In the 80s and 90s surfers went outside their local communities to form environmental organizations, influencing the entire sport around the globe. Environmental non-profit Surfrider foundation, a grassroots movement founded by four local Malibu surfers in 1984, aimed to fight some of the environmental concerns which impacted surfers, such as water quality, beach access and coastal management. Surfing’s environmental awareness was even promoted within the sport itself.  During the height of the Cold War, surfers staged several surf tournaments, titled SAND (Surfers Against Nuclear Destruction) which helped raise awareness towards the threat of nuclear destruction and its immense repercussions.


However, like the environmental movement, much of the hopeful eagerness which drove environmental change died at the turn of the century. During this time surfing had grown to solidify itself as a legitimate sport and a lucrative industry. Big surf brands such as Quicksilver, Billabong, and O’Neill, who had their humble start in the 60s and 70s had now grown to become multimillion dollar companies. As the sport grew the social tenets which brought every surfer together and lead them to aid in environmental change shifted to encompass a more mainstream audience. Surfing had struck oil and it wasn’t looking to slow down. By the early 2000s global surf population was between 17 million and 22 million. Surfing was no longer confined to the fringes of society, but rather a sport which had grown to reach all types of people and places. The new-age surfer was one with money and time on their hands, the type of person which could take week long vacations just to surf some of the best breaks (waves) in the world.

Surfing’s new popularity created economic opportunities for coastal development and directly affected the growth rate of some tourist zones. Researchers at the University of Sydney confirmed that coastal areas, which attracted surfers, aided development within that region. Researchers looked at the famous Indonesian island of Bali, using satellite images of night time lights as a proxy determining the economic growth of certain coastal areas. The data spanned between 1992 and 2013 and uncovered that a “high quality break” significantly increased development within that area with a 2.2 percent higher growth rate than regular coastal areas.


Although surfing has created many economic opportunities, the local community rarely sees these benefits. Instead it has threatened local cultures and forced local residents out of their homes as the construction of new surf shops and lodges have only raised housing costs. Rapid development has also put pressure on existing infrastructure and environmental management. In recent years Bali has experienced significant tourism growth from surfing. Within this short span of time Balinese infrastructure has not been able to combat tourisms effects on the environment. A lack of sufficient waste disposal facilities has lead to beaches being littered with trash, forcing Bali officials to call for a ‘garbage emergency’ across a 6 km piece of coastline.


In no way does surfing look like it is slowing down, however, recently surfers have begun to acknowledge the growing threat that surf tourism development has imposed on the environment. Kelly Slater tweeted about Bali’s waste issue writing “if it doesn’t #dosomething serious about this pollution it’ll be impossible to surf [there] in a few years” (Kelly Slater). Recently other surfers and even some of the industry’s biggest sponsors have rallied around this cause. The popular surf tournament held by the World Surf League and sponsored by Corona highlighted the significant threat plastic pollution had cause to Bali’s beautiful landscape, changing the name of the event from ‘Bali Pro’ to ‘Bali Protected’.

Within surfing’s short life span the sport has grown immensely, developing into a billion dollar industry while bringing millions of people together through their shared love for the sport. Throughout these years surfing has also played a pivotal role for environmentalism, forming organizations which have helped protect marine ecosystems and fight for environmental policy. But surfing now has a big question to ask itself. Will it hold on to its traditional values of respect and love for ocean life? Or, will it sacrifice these morals, and build an industry unwilling to acknowledge the environmental costs of surf tourism? If you were to ask me, surfing can prosper economically while at the same time help eradicate the human damage caused on the environment. Surfing's unique position between commercial industry and popular culture will help pave the way for environmentalism in the 21st century. The question has now been placed in the hands of the sponsors, businesses and big names of surfing, to hold on to the culture which was created all those years ago, and maintain our beloved oceans. It is in the surfing industries best interest to develop sustainably and #GoGreenForTheBigBlue.