An Overview of the Surf Tourism Industry and Its Impacts

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 3962


The structure of this literature review is twofold. Firstly, insights into adventure tourism will be presented in order to provide readers with a broader picture of the industry. Secondly, surf tourism and its impacts will be discussed, where the impacts are divided into ecological, economic and social.

Adventure Tourism

‘The magic of space is the taproot of the American character. The lure of the western horizon, the rightness of the land, and the sense of power of the wilderness were major elements in changing the Europeans who came to the United States and Canada into Americans. A reawakening of that sense of limitless potential is part of the reason for the tremendous interest in backpacking, canoeing, cycling and other forms of self-contained travel in the past few years’

Bridge, 1978

What Bridge attempted to conceptualise is a significant phenomenon in the academic fields of both sport and tourism – adventure tourism. According to Mitchell (1983) the growth in adventure-oriented activities that Bridge described is a reflection of the rationalism of the western society. Moreover, outdoor activities are often regarded as a means to escape from the urban environment in the pursuit of recreation.

Adventure-oriented travel can be examined from two academic perspectives – (i) sport literature and (ii) tourism literature. However, this paper is only concerned with the latter and more specifically with a particular category of adventure tourism – surf tourism and its impact. However, some background information on adventure tourism will be discussed before proceeding to the core of this literature review.

As evidence shows (Ewert, 1985; McLellan, 1986; Pybus, 1989), adventure tourism has been developing tremendously over the past few decades, becoming a constantly growing segment of the broad tourism market. Hall (1992, p. 143) defines adventure tourism as ‘a broad spectrum of outdoor touristic activities, often commercialized and involving an interaction with the natural environment away from the participant’s home range and containing elements of risk; in which the outcome is influenced by the participant, setting, and management of the touristic experience’ and also outlines different motivations (individual and broader social values) for participation and involvement in adventure tourism (p. 144). Nevertheless, age remains the single most influential factor in participation in adventure tourism (Mercer, 1981). According to Hendee, Gale and Catton (1971), a tendency among educated elderly individuals exists which involves a transfer from outdoor pursuits in youth to more sedate activities. Furthermore, Cater (2013) differentiates between a variety of adventure tourism models, while Swarbrooke et al. (2003) distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ levels of adventure tourism.

Despite the relatively little attention adventure tourism has received in the academic literature, the studies outlined above have attempted to frame adventure tourism theoretically as the industry is constantly growing and with its expansion the environmental, social and economic impacts are imminent (Williams and Soutar 2005; Ewert and Jamieson 2003; Tabata 1992; Cloke and Perkins 1998). On one hand, Cole (2004) evaluates the impact adventure tourism has on vegetation and soil, while others review its influence on other wildlife (Beale and Monaghan, 2004). On the other hand, Buckley (2006) distinguishes between three categories of human impact caused by adventure tourism: (i) impacts on non-tourist residents and communities; (ii) impacts on other tourists; and (iii) impacts on the tour participants themselves, and their guides. Lastly, a report by Page et al. (2005) provides information about the domestic adventure tourism in Scotland which has an annual turnover of £1.6 billion per annum. The various levels of impact of adventure tourism – broadly classified as positive and adverse – have been examined at different scales; however the following sections narrow down the scope of this literature review to only papers relevant to surf tourism.

Surf Tourism: A Brief Overview

The literature on surf tourism is continuously broadening in attempt to understand its academic and practical implications. To date prior research into both has been sparse given the capacity of the surf industry: over 10 million surfers worldwide, increasing at 12%-16% per annum (Raymond, 1998). A number of academics have attempted to give a historical overview of surf tourism (Bartholomew, 1996; Hynd, 1991; Poizat-Newcomb, 1999; and Young 1994). Nonetheless these are largely narrative and lack empirical descriptions. In accord to this line Buckley (2002a) outlines three categories of surfers: (i) independent individual surfers, (ii) recreational surfers and (iii) commercial surf tourists; however he fails to provide rigorous research into their characteristics and the implications for marketers, managers and academics. Other intellectuals have focused on more marketing-oriented topics such as segmentation of the surf tourism market (Dolnicar and Fluker, 2003a; Dolnicar and Fluker 2003b). Their studies provide an investigation into the behavioural travel patterns of surf tourists and division of this market into different segments according to demographic, psychographic characteristics and past destination choice.

Generally, surf tourism literature comprises of a range of topics explored in relation to case studies from developing nations (e.g. Fiji, Indo-Pacific Islands, Cape Verde) as tourism represents an essentiality in their economies and also has major positive as well as negative impact (Hall and Lew, 1999; Honey, 1999; Mowforth and Munt, 1998; Stabler 1997). Perhaps an investigation into different outcomes of surf tourism in separate locations is deficient in providing a general view of the impact of the type of adventure tourism. Additionally, empirical rigour is required in order to establish what the major implications for host communities are and how potential adverse impact can be minimised. The remainder of this review focuses on summarising the existing literature on the impacts of surf tourism. The most relatable studies to this literature examination are by Buckley (2002a, 2002b). These papers provide valuable insights into the main issues facing the surf industry in terms of capacity management and the impact surf activities have on natural and cultural host economies. Moreover, they demonstrate the significance of surf tourism and its consequences in order to attract more scientific and academic attention.

Consequences of Surf Tourism


‘As tourism contributes to global economic growth, it also contributes to global environmental deterioration. In addition, tourism contributes specifically to global environmental deterioration through: the impacts of transporting tourists themselves, the impacts of manufacturing, packaging and transporting goods and consumables specifically to satisfy tourist preferences.’

Buckley, 2002a

Natural and human environments are extensively affected by the impacts of surf tourism. It is evident that there are great environmental costs involved in the surfing industry which comprise of sewage discharge, vegetation clearance, increased poaching (Buckley, 2000a; Harrison, 2000, McLaren, 1998). Some of these and more will be examined in this section.

In his paper, Ponting (2008) evaluates the term ‘nirvanification’ (with particular reference to Mentawai) in terms of expanding the knowledge about production and consumption of tourist space in four phases. The results from the study disclose important information about the idealised surfer’s dream, which comprises four symbolic elements – perfect waves (Ford and Brown, 2006; Ponting, 2009; Preston-Whyte, 2002), uncrowded conditions (Manning, 1999; Ponting et al., 2005), cushioned adventure and pristine tropical environment. These symbols also represent the first phase of Nirvanification; however they are threatened by liminality of surf tourist space, which is also the second phase of the process (Urry, 1995). This aspect translates into increased concerns of the environmental impacts of surf tourism on the host location such as a rise in waste as a result from increased crowds. The third and the fourth phase of Nirvanification will be discussed later in this paper with regard to the economic impact of surfing. Conversely, a different study on the alleged vulnerability and economic dependency of small islands unfolds a rather different perspective of the environmental impact on tourism. Scheyvens and Momsen (2008) differentiate between five different strengths of small islands – good economic performers; high levels of cultural, social and natural capital; respect for traditional, holistic approaches to development; strong international linkages and political strength. These areas of strengths offer tourism opportunities and are highly likely to attract socially and environmentally responsible tourists, which also contributes to the sustainability creation in those islands.

Slotkin et al. (2009) take sustainability and place it in the context of Artificial Surfing Reefs (ASR). The authors examine ASR as a pathway to environmental sustainability through shoreline management and surf amenity benefits. The findings from the research provide a two-fold answer – ASR can influence sustainability in both a positive and negative manner. Positive influence in a sense that ASR can be used as a corrective device and restore the degraded location. The negative effect, however, can feed from the positive aspect of ASR and may result in deterioration of the surfbreak and/or unavoidable side effects for the locality.

Lewis (1998) takes the argument about environmental sustainability as a major part of the surfing industry another step further. He proposes that the existence of the potential for more transformatory relationships is evident and this potential is rooted in ‘surfers’ strategic consumption, soul surfing ethos, bodily pleasure, and direct political activism as expressed through environmental lobbying’ (p.65). This point is very strongly replicated in a paper by Wheaton (2007) where the author not only concentrates on political activism in surfing through environmentalism, but also lays particular emphasis on a pressure group called Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). The formation of the group is a result from (i) raw sewage discharge in the surfing area in Cornwall and (ii) the relationship between leisure consumption and environmentalism, which represents an entire new wave of social movements.

Lastly for this section, O’Brien and Ponting (2013) propose a four dimensional framework for sustainable surf tourism. First of all, a transition from neo-liberal approaches to development is necessary. Neo-liberalism in tourism development has received certain criticism on the grounds of neglecting environmental sustainability and local participation (Scheyvens, 2011; Sofield, 2003; Wood, 2009), therefore O’Brien and Ponting (2013) suggest that effective and sustainable surf resources allocation combined with encouraging surf resource owners to participate in the market will contribute to long-term sustainability. Secondly, as proposed by Hugues Dit Ciles (2009) an essential prerequisite to environmental sustainability is formal, long-term, co-ordinated planning, with limits to growth. In other words, competitiveness comprises of uncrowded, high quality waves. Thirdly, facilitation of cross-cultural understanding and engagement with destination communities must be evident. Finally, an important prerequisite for a sustainable surf environment is village-level sport development with emphasis on the transfer of tacit knowledge between adventure tourists and destination residents (Buckley and Ollenburg, 2013).


The economic impacts of surf tourism have been investigated and researched by a number of academics. Returning to the concept of ‘Nirvanification’ examined earlier, a discussion of the third and the fourth phase of process takes place in this section. The two stages are focused on (i) protection of the idealised surfer’s dream and (ii) the development of alternative discourses to production and consumption of the surfing industry (Ponting, 2008). Furthermore, they suggest positive outcomes from the presence of the surfing industry in the host community such as new employment opportunities, improved prospects for local people and the economy. In relation to this point, the term ‘eco-terrorism’ coined by Hanneberg (1994), which describes the growth of high-impact tourism in natural locations, is incorporated by government agencies to mean ‘tourism growth based on local natural and cultural features’ that translates into local employment and improved regional economy (Buckley, 2000b). However, the opposite phenomenon can occur if recreational capacity is not strictly complied with and, even more, is over utilised. This results in lower levels of consumption, which in turn leads to a decrease in the influx of money in the local economy. In consequence, Buckley (2002b) argues that capacity management systems should be imposed in order to identify and maintain maximum recreation capacity which is the key to economic success in the surf tourism industry.

Sheyven and Momsen (1998) point to the fact that surf tourism can be related to strong economic performance by the host location. Additionally, the preservation of cultural, social and natural capital in these surf-breaks attracts surf tourists, which contributes to the inflow of financial capital. Thus, it can be proposed that tangible and intangible capital represent a boost in the economy (Armstrong and Read, 2006). On the other hand, Gratton and van den Straaten (1994) put forward that the usage of an area’s environmental resources leads to two inevitable consequences: (i) depletion in resources availability which restricts tourism expansion in the given location and (ii) deterioration of the quality of these economically non-augmentable resources which results in products/services with inferior quality and/or a reduction in the quantity of high-quality products/services.


According to Honey (1999), Mowforth and Munt (1998) and Robinson (2000), human impacts of surf tourism can be divided into social costs and social benefits, where social costs exceed the benefits significantly. On one hand, social costs may involve interference with traditional cultural conducts, disruption of social structures and subsistence economies; escalating inequities between individuals who profit directly from tourism and those who do not; and occasionally, forced relocation of entire communities. On the other hand, social benefits comprise of improved infrastructure, enhanced economic opportunities in general and better education and health facilities.

Buckley (2002a) takes the view that cultural conflicts, particularly for international surf tourism, can occur at three different levels. These are all linked to the proposition by Milne (1997) which states that external instabilities are very likely to affect a tourism-based economy. The first cultural impact described by Buckley stems from an influx of money and competition between local entrepreneurs in attempt to take advantage of the popularity of the location among surf tourists. Wall (1997) views crime and crowding as the most common cultural impacts. The second level involves the discrepancy between the up-market offerings by tour operators and the inability of the local community to afford them. At the centre of the final prerequisite for a cultural clash stands the basic rule of surfing – free access to surf breaks except for during competitions. Buckley (2000) defines surfing without permission by foreigners unaware of this rule as rude and, even more, perhaps illegal in some communities.

In a different paper, Buckley (2002b) lists the limiting factor to recreational capacity as a function of the natural and social environment and he puts forward a solution to this problem through the introduction of capacity management systems. From a social perspective, crowding is perhaps the most restricting aspect to recreational capacity. According to Manning (1999), perceptions of crowing as a negative phenomenon do not occur until an individual’s objectives and values have been disrupted. In surfing terms this means that once the surfers’ threshold is exceeded, dissatisfaction will result in their increased reluctance to pay (Raymond, 1998). Furthermore, overcrowding is highly irreversible as high numbers are particularly hard to reduce.

A summary of the key points

All these different impacts of the surf tourism industry on the host location and community are interrelated and highly dependent on one another. On one hand, if adverse social and environmental effects increase, the tourism location will suffer from less capital entering the locality. On the other hand, increased spending levels might be beneficial for tour operators and local managers and entrepreneurs; however not necessarily positive for the native community and its natural and cultural resources. This major conflict should be the future focus for both academics and tour operators, because profitably restricting the number of tourists in these developing nations through adopting the right pricing strategies and using effective segment targeting has the potential to provide satisfaction for all stakeholder groups involved in the surf tourism industry.



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