Surf Tourist or Surf Traveler: What's the Difference?

The long road to nowhere? Photos: Unsplash

The Inertia

For the sake of discussion, put yourself on the aft deck of the 80-foot Kandui Resort Mentawai Fast ferry, motoring past the dilapidated waterfront warehouses and ramshackle warungs that flank the Batang Arau river in Padang Padang, Sumatra, preparing to cross the bar at its mouth and begin the three-hour channel crossing to the distant Mentawai Islands. Excitement runs high among the surfers on board, two contrasting types who stand at the rail, talking over the roar of the engines.

 The first is a family of five from Salt Lake City, Utah: dad, mom, a daughter and two sons. The father, let’s call him Robert, explains that he and his brood are all enthusiastic snowboarders who also enjoy surfing, having taken it up on a number of Hawaiian vacations. Now they’re headed to the Kandui Resort, located on Karangmajat Island, where they’ll enjoy plush, bungalow accommodations, friendly maid service, three healthy, delicious meals a day and a fleet of skiffs standing by with experienced surf guides at the helm, just waiting to deposit them in the lineups of the best, albeit challenging, waves on earth. 

They’re chatting with another surfer, let’s call him Michael, who’s on the same boat, but on a very different trip. Michael is a very experienced surf and sailor, who in his mid-sixties has manifested the lifelong fantasy of captaining his own 42-foot voyaging catamaran and sailing around the world, surfing as many exotic, remote surf spots as he can drop anchor in front of. Having already navigated his way throughout the South Pacific, and now working his way through the Indonesian archipelago, Michael’s taking the ferry to Karangmajet, where, after having dealt with some provisioning details in Padang, he’ll rejoin his two-man crew and resume his journey.

Same spot on the globe; two separate types of surfers. It’s tempting to call one a surf tourist, the other a surf traveler. But if so, what, exactly, is the difference?  

Industry statistics tell us that surfers are traveling more than at any other time in the sport’s history. The website Science, for example, pointing to their 2022 “empirically derived, pre-Covid estimation of international travel spending and the first assessment of sustainable surf tourism attitudes, behaviors and willingness to pay…” puts annual worldwide surf trip spending at $9.5 billion. The Surfrider Foundation, narrowing its own recent study down to active participants, estimates annual surf tourism expenditure between $31.5 and $64.9 billion (depends on who you ask, I guess), with additional data showing that 63 percent of surfers reported going on multiple surf “vacations” a year. 

No doubt about it, that’s a lot of board bags. But who’s loading those bags, and with what intentions, is up for debate. Of note in the above survey is the counterintuitive statistic revealing that female surfers and longboarders tend to be willing to spend more on surf travel – specifically sustainable surf travel – than male shortboarders. And this nugget: “The higher the ability level, the less surfers were willing to pay for sustainable surf tourism,” which likely equates to surf tourism in general.

Curious, yet still let’s consider two of the salient terms used in those studies: “tourism” and “vacation.” Do you know any surfers who’ve announced that they’re going on a Costa Rican “surf vacation?” Or who consider themselves tourists? In the past, most surfers, above all else traveling with a well-defined purpose, have long shunned both those terms, stalled in border traffic or standing at the airline ticket counter with self-righteous satisfaction, firm in the belief that, unlike everyone else in line, they’re off on a grand adventure. 

Tavarua Island Resort changed all that. It’s hard to believe that when Dave and Jeanie Clark opened the sport’s first exclusive surf resort in 1982 (G-Land, with its jungle tree houses and self-serve sustenance, doesn’t count) plenty of globetrotting surfers railed against the concept. “One hundred bucks a day?!” they’d grouse. “That would last me a month camping at Abreojos.” I remember reminding a lot of those crusty types that at the same time a room at the Carpenteria Motel 6 would run you 80 bucks, and that’d be without a cool bure, H20 shower, great food and, oh, yeah, perfect waves. Still, the idea of a surfing resort, especially one with exclusive access to the waves on offer, ran in direct opposition of hitting the holy surf trail with nothing but a passport and a pintail. Even worse, it smacked of (shudder) actual tourism. 

Funny thing was how quickly surfers with sufficient funds or available credit became big fans of what psychologists term “situational ethics.” This brand new sort of surf travel began to be embraced not so much as an adventure, but as a reward for the hard miles on all those dirt bag surfaris. Once this option became accepted as justifiable behavior, it wasn’t long until an entirely new archetype emerged: the luxury-seeking surfer. Oddly enough, this demographic included plenty of the Old Breed, who could slide easily into the kind of surf travel that includes white tablecloths, fragrant bedside bouquets and chocolates on the pillows, falling back on what, in years past, would be considered a lamentable rationalization: “Hey, I only have two weeks off.”  

So does this automatically make the luxury-seeking surfer (a real term, at least in’s survey) a tourist, as opposed to the one squeezing her body, board, and backpack next to a basket of chickens in a battered Senegalese pickup? Depends on your definition of the word. The first appearance of the term “tourist,” in the English language, at least, was in the late 18th century, and was used as a synonym for “traveler.” So there’s that. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as, “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure or interest.” Well, I’d say that most surfers would consider scouring a particular coastline for the perfect point break to be indicative of interest. But then there’s another, more nuanced definition from the good people at IGI Global Research, who describe a tourist as “someone who travels for pleasure, recreation, and exchange of culture. 

Now that’s a lot closer to the mark. Or at least it should be. The exchange of culture, I mean. Because it just might be that what separates a traveler from a tourist has nothing to do with the amount of money you do or do not have to spend on exclusivity, amenities or lack thereof. I’ve known serious luxury-seeking surfers who’ve completely underwritten village hospitals and helped put resort staff’s children through school; I’ve encountered plenty of well-weathered barefoot adventurers who’ve been visiting places like Baja, Indonesia and Central America for decades, but who have never bothered to learn a single word of the country’s native language. You tell me who’s the tourist and who’s the traveler. Perhaps the difference has nothing to do with room service versus sleeping rough, but lies simply in one’s behavior, and the positive sort of cultural exchange possible when visiting far off lands with surfboards under our arms.


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