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Beach Grit

Surf tourism “Killing Central America”!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Soaring real estate prices; locals turned into cleaners, drivers, tour guides… 

Did you ever think that one day, surf tourism would be a thing? Many years ago, of course, surfers rejected the whole notion of tourism, where every whim, need, desire is taken care of by troupes of indigenous workers toiling for their western masters.

Hence adventures to the hitherto unknown islands of Bali, Java, Sumatra and so forth, surfers melting into local communities, learning the language, connecting. 

These days, surfers have been built towns in every crummy Third World joint from Indonesia to Mexico. These ghettos, filled with balayaged boys and girls, rely on two crucial factors: cheap labour and cheap land. The four-hundred k that doesn’t buy you even a piece of a studio apartment in New York gets you a palace by the beach in Nicaragua; the thirty bucks an hour you gotta pay for a nanny in Sydney gets you a fleet of industrious hands in Bali.

Good for the tourist; ruinous for the indigenous community. Real estate prices soar. Trades and traditional crafts lost as everyone becomes cleaners, drivers and tour guides.

In an essay on Pacific Standard, the fantastically named Cinnamon Janzer skewers surf tourism. Here’s a good lil excerpt:

“A 2009 study on global mobility found that ‘Sayulita has become transnationalized … by its real estate market, which is now mainly advertised for potential clients in the north. These marketing campaigns have [rendered] property ownership virtually inaccessible to the local population.’ Even in 2009, property prices started to reach into the millions of dollars in Sayulita, where average homes used to cost just a few thousand dollars.

Once tiny fishing villages like Sayulita and San Juan are touched by surf tourism, they begin to transform culturally. Nick Towner, a lecturer at the Auckland Institute of Studies in New Zealand whose doctoral work researched the isolated effects of surf tourism in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia, explains that, ‘after a while, you start to see a shift in the community. They sell their nets and the younger people don’t fish anymore. Now they’re dependent on surf tourism, but that’s seasonal.’

Communities that once relied on their own skills for subsistence are now dependent on tourism, an outside force that naturally waxes and wanes. Towner’s work also found that younger generations begin to adopt both the appearance and behaviors of the tourists they see. He explains that they begin to wear board shorts and sometimes turn to activities like drug dealing to acquire iPhones that they can’t otherwise afford.

Surfers often head to exotic locales on vacation with the intention to relax and escape, often turning to drugs and alcohol in the process, a trend reflected in the popping up debauchery-fueled bar crawls like San Juan del Sur’s Sunday Funday. Local kids, however, don’t understand that the tourists’ vacations are just that—vacations. What younger generations of locals perceive as a lifestyle is really just a two-week break from what is likely a job that involves sitting in front of a computer hours on end and a dull commute to and from an office every day.”

Do you think, as I do, that eventually there’ll be uprisings everywhere and the surf colonialists will have their heads removed and placed on pikes as a warning to anyone else who might think it’s a good idea to stomp into foreign cultures and takeover?

Or will it be biz as usual, money talks etc, forever?

Read the rest here.