If someone were to ask you what the benefits of surfing were, how would you respond?
Maybe you’d say, ‘It stops me from becoming morbidly obese,’ or ‘I get to talk about it with attractive members of the opposite sex at parties,’ or perhaps ‘Maybe one day I’ll be mistaken for Simon Baker, with his luscious hair and saltwater-supported curls.’ Now, these are all obviously true, but it turns out there are some more surprising upsides to surfing.
One beneficiary is the environment, particularly when World Surfing Reserves (WSR) are established, like the ones in Peru’s Lobitos, California’s Malibu, and Todos Santos Islands in Mexico. This WSR status prohibits any overzealous developments and, as a result, the ecosystem benefits. As you can imagine, industrial run-off isn’t what sea-life typically thrives on.
However, dolphin and seal prosperity isn’t the only motive for establishing World Surfing Reserves or, more generally, letting thousands of foam-wielding backpackers swarm the world’s beaches. It turns out surfers spend money at the places we visit—fucking heaps of it.
Isabella Kaminski from the BBC called it surfonomics, and as the name implies, it’s the study of the economic benefit surfing provides. An early study centred around Mavericks—that cold, scary wave in NorCal—found that the wave drew $24 million USD to the region every year; not just from the thousands of 5 am espressos downed by those who surf there, but mostly from the hundreds of spectators who travel to Half Moon Bay each time a swell arrives.
João de Macedo, a big wave surfer involved in the 2009 study, said that this sort of research was essential for surfing spots to earn legal protection. ‘[the economic study] was something that when you talk to a politician [they could use to] justify conservation in a more practical way.’ He told the BBC.
Since this original study back in ’09, similar research is being undergone around the world.
Nik Strong-Cvetich, the executive director of Save The Waves (the people that determine World Surf Reserves) knew surfing had economic benefits, he didn’t however expect it to be as astronomical as the figures suggest.
‘When we originally started surfonomics, it was just to kind of say, “Hey surfing has value,”‘ Strong-Cvetich told the BBC. ‘But now we want to make sure that we’ve proven the value of all these places we’re protecting. When we presented one of the studies in Chile, they were like, “You guys have got to be kidding me. Surfers are spending that much?” But, like, they are.’
In 2013, the British group Surfers Against Sewage conducted a study that found the overall benefit of surfing to be between $1.4 — $2.5 billion to the UK’s economy. No, that wasn’t a typo, two-point-five billion. And in Lobitos (which is a World Surfing Reserve) the spending of surfers equals a significant amount of the town’s entire budget: $3.6 million.
In these studies, surveys were also conducted on why surfers from outside the region visited that particular spot and reasons that might not return. In Lobitos, a significant reason a visitor mightn’t return was the trash in the streets and the number of oil rigs in the region. Those involved hope that the financial benefit of surfing, and the possibility it might diminish, is a way of convincing governments to improve environmental conditions and even reduce the presence of fossil fuel extraction.
‘The idea of having stats is to be able to argue that there’s huge importance in taking care of these environmental issues, because of the amount of money they mean.’ Alejandro Pizarro, a researcher at EcoSwell reported.
Despite the benefits of this new field of surfonomics, there are still holes in the research. Namely, the exclusion of the negative environmental impacts it has: tonnes of CO2 emitted via flights, the oil-based construction of the majority of surfboards and wetsuits, and the development of ‘surf resorts’ in places that were previously unadulterated.
In short, there’s a clear economic upside to surfing, but the argued environmental benefits of a WSR might be counteracted by the fact that tens of thousands of people actually want to surf the place.