Surf Tourism: A Sustainable Alternative
This is San Mateo. It is a small coastal town just outside the city of Manta, Ecuador where traditionally the majority of local inhabitants have made a living from artisanal fishing. San Mateo is also a place that was once known by surfers around the world as having one of the longest waves in South America. With the combination of fishing and the potential for surfing and coastal tourism, San Mateo had a bright future as a thriving community. That all changed with the construction of a pier and fishing facility for the fishermen in San Mateo which literally cut in half this iconic wave. What was once a place that was steadily growing on the international surfing scene and had potential for economic growth with this alternative activity, is now just another community left to rely solely, and arguably precariously, on the industry of fishing. The problem facing the government of Ecuador is a common one in the developing world. How does a nation balance economic development with environmental sustainability, especially when the most lucrative of industries wreak havoc on the natural resources of the planet? One answer can be found in the community of Puerto Engabao.
Puerto Engabao is another small, artisanal fishing town minutes away from the city of Playas, and like San Mateo it is also known around the world for its incredible point break waves. Everyday surfers and tourists flock to this tiny coastal town to enjoy the waves and to watch the fishermen push off from the beach through the pounding surf in their small boats. The community of Puerto Engabao has recognized the potential that such tourism poses for sustainable economic development, and they have taken the steps to tap into this market. With the assistance of the NOBIS foundation, the community has created a system of community hostels, with various places for tourists to stay overnight. In addition, community members have been trained in community organization, environmental impact, gastronomy, and sustainable tourism. What is happening in Puerto Engabao is but one example of a sustainable alternative to resource extraction that could easily be developed alongside the traditional artisanal fishing that currently takes place – an activity that interestingly attracts tourism as well. However, the advances in Puerto Engabao are under serious threat as the small village is now facing the same fate as San Mateo. Under what is being called the PROPESCAR initiative the government of Ecuador plans on creating a pier and fishing facility for the fishermen in Puerto Engabao that will completely destroy the wave that is enjoyed everyday by surfers from around the world. But it is more than just a wave that will be destroyed. If this plan goes forward, all of the steps that the community has taken to find an alternative form of development will have been wasted. The short term economic results of increased fishing capacity in Puerto Engabao may be helpful, but its sustainability is highly questionable. Tourism and surfing in Engabao on the other hand, have the potential to both preserve the environment, to create jobs for generations to come, and provide a sustainable alternative to complement traditional fishing.
That the government chooses to focus on fishing as a means of sustainable economic development at a time when the future of the oceans are in question is difficult to grasp. The movement of sea life and the vacillating nature of catches in the fishing industry make it difficult to produce reliable data, but the outlook is grim. In a 2007 comprehensive study by the Nature Conservancy, it was determined that the number one threat to marine conservation and biodiversity in South America is fishing. Indeed, several international environmental organizations agree that global fish stocks are on the brink of collapse, and that if we continue along the path that we are heading in regards to the ocean there could be huge ramifications for the entire planet. It is not just the oceans, but the coastlines as well that are endangered when humans intervene with natural processes and formations such as the construction of piers. Environmental Impact assessments of piers in places like San Mateo and other coastlines where large waves break naturally have shown that the disruption of the wave can cause problems of sedimentation and pollution, among others.
There are waves all along the coast of Ecuador that attract surfers from around the globe, and the activity of surfing has very little negative environmental impact. On the contrary, surf tourism often represents a sustainable way of travel that involves cultural immersion, local economic contribution, and the promotion of environmental conservation. The socio-environmental impact of many forms of tourism is certainly questionable, with some negative examples in Ecuador standing out such as the party town of Montanita or the over-visited Galapagos islands. If managed properly however, and at the community level, the sustainability of tourism is undoubtedly clear. Tourism is a steadily growing industry world wide that accounts for 7% of jobs in all of Latin America. In Ecuador alone in 2009 it generated $663 million – a small number in comparison to other Latin American countries with more advanced tourism infrastructures. Tourism acts as an important conduit for cultural exchange as well as for much needed foreign currency inflows.
The promotion of artisanal fishing is meritorious and important, but it should be in support of the traditional artisanal methods which minimize the environmental impact and supports local economies. Further, the development of artisanal fishing must be accompanied by the development of alternative industries when possible, and one must not be developed to the peril of the other. The most responsible way of assisting the artisanal fishermen and their communities, is not by increasing their efficiency, but rather by ensuring that the oceans and the environment stay healthy. The Ecuadorian government cannot control the unsustainable fishing practices of other fisheries around the world, and so facing a potential collapse of ocean life it is vital that sustainable alternatives to the industry of fishing be sought out. Tourism is such an alternative, and it is imperative that it is developed for the sake of both the local inhabitants of coastal Ecuador, and the environment as a whole.