Surfer/Scientist/Systems Thinker/Community Organizer/Social Entrepreneur
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Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka.

Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka. Photo: Yanik Tissera


The Inertia

Traveling is almost an inevitable part of being a surfer – the pursuit of new adventures, uncrowded waves, new frontiers, and undiscovered seas. Surf tourism is a brilliant thing for the self-indulgent surfer and hey, it can bring in billions of dollars each year to local economies, too. But it’s also no secret that surf tourism can have hectic impacts on the local people, communities and environments – turning those dollars into devils.

In response to the need for more sustainable and ethical surf tourism, there is a growing “sustainable surf tourism” movement which even goes as far to combine surf tourism with alleviating poverty, protecting coastlines, providing jobs and contributing to local community wellbeing through projects like building health clinics and schools and promoting local entrepreneurship; in effect, taking on the global-to-local project of mainstream international development and applying it to surf tourism spaces. But even then, the neocolonial approaches underpinning most “sustainable surf travel” can have unintentional impacts, only perpetuating societal and economic inequalities.

On the contrary, what if you’re just one of those surfers who only gets two weeks holidays a year and you’re all for doing your bit but all you really want is to have two weeks off, spend it chilling on a boat in the Maldvies scoring perfect barrel after barrel, and just for a moment, no you don’t care if you drink out of a plastic water bottle and no you don’t care whether you have a meaningful interaction with the locals. You’re just there to surf, alright?

It’s easy to pass the buck and say the government should regulate it, the locals should do this and that, the foreign investors shouldn’t be so greedy. Yeah, there are a lot of factors at play. It’s complex and kind of overwhelming. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t all individually still responsible for our own actions. After all, we don’t have to go on a surf trip. It’s our (very privileged) choice to.

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The short of it is, everything we do has an impact and we have a choice to be conscious or (remain) unconscious about it. And surf travel has a big impact, whether you want to think about it or not.

So how can we win them all? Well, honestly, I doubt that we can in the current lens that we view the world. But with a little bit of shuffling of perspective here and there, at an individual level, we can at least try and come very close.

I recently came back from Sri Lanka, where I co-facilitated surf trip with 9 other girls as part of The Fresh Air Project. A surf travel project underpinned by creating an immersive cultural experience that aims to change surfers perspectives and provide authentic opportunity to experience the places we travel through the eyes and lives of the locals.

It was a beginner/intermediate trip, so we spent the first week at a values-aligned surf camp getting our surfing skills up to scratch (during the big Indian Ocean swell that hit) before venturing up to Arugam Bay on the east coast. Where, unfortunately, it happened to be the first flat week of the year. Bummer. We didn’t get to score barrel after barrel and just focus on our own self-indulgent desire to surf 24/7. But we did experience something a hundred waves couldn’t replace – we shared the gift of surfing with the local women.

While many of our other trips are much more remote and rugged (i.e. to North Sumatra), we experienced a different kind of cultural immersion in Arugam Bay. A few months earlier, we had met some of the local pro surfers and another family from Surfing The Nations at the Surf + Social Good Summit in Bali. So in the lead-up to our trip we coordinated with them to organize a Girls Make Waves event.

Conscious of the propensity for us to appear as ‘outsiders’, we ensured that every step of the process was run and coordinated by the locals and our role was simply there to support. We were sponsored by Salt Gypsy to wear culturally sensitive surf attire, which also made it easier to gain the respect and trust and the locals. And for the first time ever – the local women of Arugam Bay got in the ocean and went surfing. We had a seriously fun day on a ‘private’ beach teaching the girls to swim, doing yoga and helping them paddle into and stand up on their first ever waves, followed by an evening of delicious food, Bollywood dancing and tonnes of laughs. In a place where it’s not culturally normal (or even acceptable) for women to participate in activities like surfing, this day was truly transformational for the women of Arugam Bay, and the wider community. You can read more about it all here.

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