Despite how man may try, come wave pool, artificial reef, or otherwise, good waves that occur naturally and are discovered by chance have a mystic quality that cannot be replicated. And according to Sydney University economist Dr. Sam Wills and Thomas McGregor of Oxford University, good waves may be worth more than their weight in stoke and froth. “We find that surfing waves contribute approximately US$50 billion to global economic activity each year,” reads the study.
From 1992 to 2013, McGregor and Wills studied 5000 surf breaks across 146 countries. In a study, published Monday, McGregor and Wills and their team from Sydney University’s School of Economics conclude that a quality wave can result in as much as 2.2 additional percentage points worth of growth for local gross domestic product (GDP) – one of the key barometers used by economists.
To understand economic growth over time, they analyzed light emission and population growth at each of the breaks via satellite imagery. The team also conducted experiments taking into consideration changes in wetsuit technology over time (especially for colder locales), and climate anomalies. For example, better warmer wetsuits and higher frequency of storm activity (especially during an El Niño year) were all factors that contributed to higher rates of economic growth.
And just as quality breaks can contribute to economic growth, so to can destroying a local break have a negative impact. In the study, Wills and McGregor use Mundaka as an example. When the freight train of a lefthander was dredged years ago, temporarily impacting the quality of the wave, the ASP had no choice but to cancel the annual Billabong Pro. Jardim do Mar in Portugal suffered a similar fate after the construction of a sea wall.
Quantifying the value of a quality surf break in economic terms like McGregor and Wills have done is likely to have ripple effects for years to come. For some time the surfing community has been well aware of their monetary contributions to various locales. “Ocean tourism and recreation are the top economic drivers in our coastal communities, worth an estimated $100 billion in GDP annually nationwide and surfing clearly plays an important role in communities with waves,” Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, told The Inertia. “For example, we know that surfers visiting Trestles spend between 8-13 million dollars a year in the City of San Clemente, showing the value a well-managed surf spot can have for your community.” And now, environmental groups have an extremely comprehensive study over an extended period of time to point to when seeking to convince policymakers of the value of a local surf break.
It’s worth noting that the subject of sustainable economic growth is outside the scope of this study. In other words, the study quantifies economic growth for nearly 5000 surf spots but fails to qualify it. Frequenters of Bali, certain spots in Costa Rica, and other now well-treaded surf destinations may have personal experiences with escalating amounts of trash on the beach, more and more high-end condos and hotels cropping up, and other unfortunate symptoms of increasing rates of tourism.
Dr. Jess Ponting, Director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University put it this way, “It’s important to understand the limitations of the data. It speaks only to levels of development using night time lighting as an indicator of economic growth. It says nothing about the type and quality of that development. It says nothing about the sustainability of that development and if it is helping or destroying local cultures and their environments, if supply chains for those industries are localized or based on international imports, if workers are locals or foreigners working illegally on tourist permits, if businesses are legal tax paying entities or foreigners scamming local systems. This not taking anything away from Sam’s research, it does what is aimed to do incredibly well and I am so stoked to have this work available to all surf researchers moving forward. But, what it also does is demonstrate that surfing is driving change on global and massive scale and much of the surf community is kind of asleep at the wheel.”
By now, economists are well aware of what’s called the “resource curse,” a theory that lesser developed countries are exploited by industrialized nations for their natural resources (e.g. oil, natural gas, etc.) and don’t benefit from being “resource rich.” In the case of quality waves, traveling surfers, of course, have no alternative but to pay for lodging and meals locally, injecting cash into the economy. So in that sense, the parallel is imperfect. Still, surfers and local governments share the responsibility to be good stewards of a quality wave.
Dr. Wills tells the Australian Financial Review that the idea for the study arose while completing his PhD at Oxford. “I had the idea for the paper straight after I submitted my PhD thesis,” he said. “It was November and I needed to get out of Oxford, so I looked for somewhere warm and sunny with good waves. I settled on Taghazout in Morocco, thinking it would be quiet. Flying in at sunset over the desert I noticed that everything was dark, except for one little spot that was lit up like Pitt Street: Taghazout. Once I arrived I realized that this previously sleepy little fishing village had been overrun by surfers, and so I wanted to figure out whether it was systematically happening around the world.”