Growth of Surfing in China: At What Cost?
Surfing corporations and governing bodies see China as a huge new market and potential audience. Former Association of Surfing Professionals CEO Brodie Carr claimed that, “China is a powerful athletic country, a vast country and marketplace with a potential billion-strong audience for us.” Given declining surf product sales in the west, surfing organisation’s eyes have turned to the emerging middle-class and new rich in China. Surfing competitions have recently been held on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
I went to Riyuewan Bay, Hainan Island – where the contests are being held – following the latest round of contests. As an expat surfer living in China, I have been to Hainan four times, three times prior to any competitions. My observations have led to have some concerns and suggestions I would like to express to the broader surfing community.
The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) and International Surfing Association (ISA) have run the Swatch Women’s World Longboarding Championship and the Hainan Wanning Riyuewan Bay International Surfing Festival Presented by Quiksilver, which is made up of the International Surfing Association’s (ISA) China Cup and the Association of Surfing Professionals’ (ASP) World Qualifying Series Hainan Cup.
President of the ISA, Fernando Aquerre, has said “Without a doubt I can say that China has made a grand entrance into the surfing family.”
When professional surfer Cori Schumacher boycotted the 2011 Women’s longboard championship in China on human rights grounds, then ASP CEO Brodie Carr contacted her and suggested that Cori “proactively go there as an ambassador of a sport that possesses the unparalleled ability to empower people.”
So what is this “grand entrance” and “unparalleled ability to empower people” looking like on the ground at Riyuewan Bay?
One of the most significant effects of the contests I noticed has been the building of a permanent contest site. The contest site includes large sheds, media centre, competitor hang out area, and judging building. A large bitumen car park has also been built. The natural shoreline has become a built environment. These facilities are only used during the contests.
A local restaurant owned by ‘Mama’ has been torn down, and her land reclaimed by the government – a common practice in China when government officials can see money being made and want a grab at it themselves. Mama was compensated. However, she lost that income stream. Mama now runs a small drink stand in a new ‘surf club’ (owned by a businessman/government official) built on the site of her old place.
The warehouse-style surf club houses a large new restaurant and the ‘Surfing Hainan’ surf shop. One of the local surfers is now part owner of the restaurant. That could be seen as a benefit stemming from the development borne of the surfing competitions. However, the restaurant is doing poorly. Outside the contest periods there are not enough customers to support such a large restaurant facility. The poor going of the restaurant has caused friction between the co-owners, and the restaurant is looking like closing down after only one month of business.
This transformation of natural environment into a built environment and small businesses into large commercial enterprises is consistent with the growth of Hainan Island in general. A new resort and condominium complex seemingly opens each week. New highways cut across paddy fields. Private beaches have been established. Golf courses cover huge swaths of land. The goal in the government brochures is to make Hainan the “New Waikiki”.
Many surfers would not appreciate the model of development being pursued.
Further to changing the natural environment into a built environment, another environmental effect of the competitions has been trash from the competitions ending up on the headland. Piles of garbage have been dumped a few metres into the vegetation. Every company and organisation involved in the competitions had a responsibility to make sure this didn’t happen, and to check afterwards that it didn’t. This environmental vandalism is barely a blip on the radar of the environmental destruction taking place because of over-development on Hainan (and industrial waste and construction in China, more broadly). Yet, it doesn’t cry out “sustainable development” either.
Surfing companies, organisations and competitors had (and still have) the chance to show how the environment can be managed to benefit tourism, rather than be destroyed because of it, as tends to be the case in China. To date, they haven’t done enough.