El Salvador is quickly becoming a stand out surf destination due to its world-class point breaks, warm water and consistent conditions. The country’s most popular surfing area is on the pacific coast, centered around La Libertad, which plays host to many incredible waves such as Mizata, K-59, El Sunzal and the world class Punta Roca.
These quality waves provide a huge draw to the country and are helping to boost the economy. In 2014 travel and tourism alone accounted for 4.1 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. But unfortunately, El Salvador is not without its problems. For 12 years the country was ripped apart by a bloody civil war that ended in 1992. Many citizens fled to the United States to escape. Once the civil war had ended the US deported thousands of illegal migrants back to their home country. Many of them brought back the violent street gang culture to El Salvador that had shaped their existence in California. These gangs have evolved and rivalry violence between the two main gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) still causes major problems within the country.
However, I did not write this piece with the intention of dissuading tourists from visiting. Having worked and lived here for a month I haven’t experienced any violence, just friendly smiling locals and perfect waves. Sure, there are more machetes casually lying around than I am used to in the UK, but the only time I have seen them in action is to collect coconuts. After spending a few days in La Libertad, I moved down to the remote surf town of Las Flores. Situated next to the sleepy fishing village of El Cuco. I have spent 5 weeks working right on the headland of the famous point break at the AST surf hotel. Running surf tours, teaching surf lessons, and helping make improvements to the business.
Las Flores in an incredibly beautiful location where surfing is everything and the pace of life rolls along at a relaxing speed. The range of hotels in the area attracts surfers from all over the world, predominately the United States and Brazil. And the best part the eastern coast of El Salvador is that it is still relatively new to tourism. Sure, you get a few guys that think they have automatic priority because they surfed at Punta Mango ten years ago when no one knew about it. But I guess you can’t blame them. Mango’s is an incredible wave, a short 20-minute boat ride from one of the friendly boat captains takes you to a perfect top to bottom point break that races across the rocky shallows.
The reality of El Salvador is it’s a beautiful country with an array of waves attractive to any surfer, but we should not take this for granted. El Salvador is still an extremely poor county, so as visiting tourists we should want to know that our trip is benefiting, and not hindering the country’s development. Having studied Environmental Science I built an interest in the sustainability of the surfing industry by combining my degree and my favorite hobby. One of the reasons for traveling to Central America was to experience and document the impact of surfing tourism on less developed countries. From research of previous locations, surf tourism can often spread rapidly to remote communities that do not have the necessary systems in place to deal with this sudden influx of tourism. Unfortunately it can result in long term environmental and social degradation as well as failure to maximize the economic capacity of the situation.
In many ways El Salvador is adapting well to encourage tourism; locals are using their old fishing boats to run surf tours, taking surf photos to sell to clients and running other surf related business’s such as ding repair shops. As I write this, Las Flores is hosting the Latin Pro surf competition. All accommodations on the beach are full of surfers from an array of countries in South and Central America. What is great to see is how much the locals realize that events like this, and tourism in general, have become an important part of their livelihoods. After a week of solid rain the beach was left covered in vegetation and litter, but every effort was taken by locals and council workers to prepare the beach for the competition. Las Flores still remains fairly undeveloped and fortunately tourism seems to be settling in at a steady pace to allow the local community to cope effectively and evolve in a sustainable manner. However, in the main surfing area, La Libertad, surf tourism is booming and expanding rapidly. The government has recently invested large amounts of money to revitalize the coast, building a large Malecon (seaside promenade.) On a positive note this has resulted in less crime, more job opportunities for Salvadorians and a boom for local economy.
Whilst the coastline area of La Libertad is bustling with hotels, surf camps, bars and restaurants, it cannot be forgotten that the majority of the area is still very poor. Here the two sides of El Salvador are revealed. On the one hand you have tourist friendly development designed to bring in more business, and on the other there are local people living in shanty shacks by the side of the road. One of the main problems this brings is the improper removal of waste and an underdeveloped sewage system resulting in rubbish and pollution. When it rains this sewage and rubbish is washed directly into the sea, creating unfavorable surfing conditions and unsightly scenes.
This leads to my point of creating a more sustainable overall environment and surf industry here. True, it is important for the government to invest in developing more tourism opportunities in the area but they also need to improve the services and quality of life for the local population. This is to ensure that the area benefits from surfing tourism in the long term and doesn’t solely provide economic profits for those involved in the surfing industry.
Surfers will always return to El Salvador, but as is the same with many developing countries with incredible waves, more action needs to be taken to spread the benefit that surf tourism can provide and take action to reduce social and environmental degradation.