stealing pura vida: surf tourism on trial in Costa Rica

by: Tara Ruttenberg

 Don’t steal this. Don’t you dare steal this. Photo: Caracola Surf

Don’t steal this. Don’t you dare steal this. Photo: Caracola Surf

It’s no secret that surfing and surf tourism contribute significantly to national income in countries with surfable coastlines around the world. In fact, an article published last year in Costa Rica’s La Prensa Libre quantified surfing’s contribution to national GDP at an estimated $800 million annually with surfers representing nearly a quarter of all tourists entering Costa Rica each year. National revenue from tourism is second only to that of Costa Rica’s thriving services sector, surpassing income from export crops like coffee, bananas and pineapple. As the country’s second most lucrative industry, the dollar value of tourism in Costa Rica is estimated at $1.92 billion a year, a significant percentage of which is directly attributed to surf tourism, since nearly a quarter of all tourists entering the country mention surfing as among their primary reasons for visiting, as reported by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT).

Beyond Costa Rica, the surf tourism phenomenon has taken coastal communities by storm, spanning 161 countries and representing the fastest growing sector of the booming global surf industry, itself valued between $70 and $130 billion dollars annually. In a small country like Costa Rica, with a population still below 5 million, a sum like $800 million a year should indeed catch our attention, especially when income poverty is estimated near 30 percent of the country’s population. Logically then, promoting surf tourism might be seen as a useful strategy for poverty alleviation and development because many of Costa Rica’s best surf destinations happen to also be home to some of the country’s income-poorest residents.

With surfing and surf tourism-related income nearing a billion dollars annually, it’s hard not to wonder where all of that money ends up. The conscientious among us might hope it somehow finds its way to those who need it most – to Costa Ricans’ whose humble families have lived in and around our favorite surf spots for decades, if not centuries. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in countless beach towns across the globe, the vast majority of that whopping $800 million never reaches the Costa Rican people, particularly those whose lives have changed dramatically as a result of surf tourism and its heavy impact on their land, lifestyle and livelihood.

In Playa Hermosa, my adopted home on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, the social inequality and marginalization of local populations resulting from the surf tourism boom is seen on the daily, whether we’ve grown accustomed to it or not. We drive past the little shack-houses lining the main road on our way to surf miles of endless warm-water barrels up and down the coast. We see the people living there every day, their chickens squawking about and toothless abuelos lounging in rocking chairs, clean laundry on the line blowing gently in our tires’ dust-cloud breeze as we whiz on by. Wedged between beachfront hotels, restaurants and bars owned mainly by foreigners, these run-down shacks and their inhabitants look out of place – the endearing poverty of misfit throwbacks to a less civilized reality. We don’t know these people living there and most of us barely nod in acknowledgement of their presence as we walk by to check the surf.

“God, I wish someone would do something about that eye sore,” I heard a friend say once. The eye sore of course being the homes and lives of the remaining Hermosa locals who haven’t yet succumbed to increasing pressure to sell their money-maker property to the highest profit-seeking bidder.

Meanwhile, the light-skinned crowds in the water seem to grow with the tide’s every ebb and flow. More and more international surfers stoked on the adopted paradise we get to call home. They come for the surf, they stay for the vacation lifestyle. And that lifestyle typically includes lodging at foreign-owned hotels and apartments, meals at foreign-owned restaurants, beers at foreign-owned bars, and grocery shopping at Mas X Menos, a local Walmart subsidiary. Sure, there are exceptions and they might go to the farmer’s market in Jaco on Friday or eat at Rustico a couple times for the “cultural experience.”

True, foreign-owned businesses provide menial employment opportunities to local residents who may have been otherwise unemployed. And sure, the money from hotels’ three percent tourism tax does eventually make its way to the Costa Rican government, although only god knows where it goes from there.

What’s quite clear, however, is that while the surf tourism industry is making billions across the globe and surfers are paying top dollar to score waves in every nook and coastal cranny of the Earth, there are countless people in countless nations just like our neighbors in Hermosa who suffer the consequences and never see a penny of it.

Hermosa is but a tiny microcosm of a much larger phenomenon in globalized surf tourism where foreigners innocently “discover” an epic wave in a small, income-poor fishing village. Fast-forward five years and there are half a dozen surf hotels and a few bars and restaurants – all foreign owned – starting to swallow up the coastline. The locals look on confused with furrowed brow. A few of them dare to pick up a board and give it a go, and the rest go about their business making ends meet. In ten to fifteen years, we have a situation like Hermosa, where a few steadfast landowners refuse to sell out despite the growing price tag on their all-but-certain destiny.

In twenty years, we have the Jaco experience of today, a bustling, tourist mini-city at the sea just five miles north of Hermosa. There, the majority of the town’s original locals can no longer afford to live, especially after being convinced to sell their land to a foreign realtor for dirt cheap, the same realtor who then adds a couple more zeroes to the sale price and sells it to the next foreigner with dollar signs in his eyes, in the process making a nice little nest-egg to support his own paradise-found lifestyle. Jess Ponting, Director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University calls this process “neo-colonialism.” I’ve also heard it called “business as usual,” allowing us to turn our heads the other way and just continue to let it happen. What we haven’t yet done is face the music of just how messed up it is and start doing things differently. A difficult task, no doubt, but one we must face as a global surfing community if we care about things like humanity and sustainability in the places we love to surf.

When we stop to consider what Costa Rica’s $800 million in surf-related income actually means, it reads more like a tragedy than an inspiring adventure tale, especially when we recognize that this is happening all over the world, where local communities find themselves in the throes of any given phase of the seemingly linear trajectory of the surf tourism boom. Despite the current situation we face, the story doesn’t have to have a tragic ending. As surfers who love the sea and value the places where we spend our days surfing, it’s on us to acknowledge our impact and start making some important changes. Adjusting our own surf tourism practices – shopping, eating, sharing local – is a start, but it will take bigger moves to turn this thing around. Surfer philanthropists in places like Lobitos, Peru (Waves for Development), Bocas del Toro, Panama (Give and Surf) and Gigante, Nicaragua (Project WOO), have created volunteer-based community development organizations seeking to address these issues. Organized groups in Salina Cruz, Mexico, Papua New Guinea and the Mentawais have taken it a step further by taxing surf tourism and designing surf tourism management plans to help direct the development process in line with community needs and values.

In Costa Rica, the move toward sustainable surf tourism is gaining momentum, with Travis Bays of the Bodhi Surf School in Bahia Ballena assisting the Marviva and KETO Foundations in establishing best practices for sustainable surf tourism, focusing particularly on surf schools. Support for groups like these and creating our own local organizations can be a helpful way to redirect the effects of surf tourism in Costa Rica and beyond. In the meantime, talking to our neighbors in Hermosa, thinking about the community we all want and working together to shape the future of our own surf tourism experience should at least make our list of priorities.

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