Writer / Grad Student

Sustainable Surf Tourism for Development: Surfing meets Neocolonialism

At this point, most of us agree that surf tourism as a global phenomenon is a significant force to be reckoned with in surfing’s hotspots around the world, leaving a plethora of complex social and environmental challenges in its wake. Surf tourism has been repeatedly criticized as a process of neocolonialism, with local cultures and livelihoods increasingly marginalized by foreign-owned surf tourism businesses operating in a free-for-all atmosphere of market-based, neoliberal competition. Born of the desire to do things better, sustainable surf tourism has emerged valiant in its intention to save local people and their environments from the destructive impacts of unregulated surf tourism. And while useful in its diagnosis of surf tourism within neoliberal governance structures as a neocolonial process of social exploitation, marginalization and environmental devastation, sustainable surf tourism, as we know it, is unfortunately remiss in its proposed solutions to these challenges. Quite the contrary, in fact: by seeking to harness local economic growth generated through surf tourism as a mechanism for promoting Western models of socioeconomic development, sustainable surf tourism invariably reproduces the very same processes of both neoliberalism and neocolonialism that it purports to resolve. Good intentions and all.

From our position in the “developed” world, sustainable surf tourism is seen as a noble cause we can all understand, and a solution-oriented project many of us want to support, not least given our intrinsic and/or media-driven obsession with traveling to surf. Not to mention the current trend of jumping on the all-things-sustainable bandwagon as the means of doing our part to save the world we’re destroying by doing all of the other things we do and don’t do. Yet when we shift our lens and examine the ins-and-outs of what sustainable surf tourism is really sustaining, its image becomes blurred, forcing us to question its very objectives and our own roles in sustaining all of it.

In the past few years, scholars and practitioners of the emerging field of sustainable surf tourism have gone even further in their pursuit of surf-tourism-for-development, wanting surf tourism to do things like alleviate poverty, protect coastlines, provide jobs and contribute 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. In so doing, we have also taken on mainstream development’s perverse manifestations born of the self-righteous mindset, or what eco-feminist Vandana Shiva refers to as the mono-culturalizing meta-narrative, that what I know as best for me in my Western mind and my modern-materialist world view must also be best for you, uneducated backwards natives of the impoverished, undeveloped coastland, and it is therefore my duty as your superior to help you develop into modernity. Never mind culture and spiritual cosmovision, you need hospitals selling Western medicine and schools teaching scientific knowledge, and more money and jobs so you can live a decent life and be more like me, because the way we do things is not only the right way, it’s the only way to live a dignified life. With very few exceptions, this is the mindset and message defining international development today, as the premise behind the Millennium Development Goals setting global strategies for economic and community development, along with poverty alleviation strategies pursued by organizations like Oxfam International, UN Development Program, and even many small-scale local development non-profits who focus on community economy-building through things like microcredit, education, health, and eco-tourism, for example. Interestingly, and unfortunately, we are now seeing this same Western-modern mindset and its underlying message as the driving ideology in much of sustainable surf tourism’s discourse and practice.


And by aligning its solutions with Western modes of development, trampling local cultures, values and world views in the process, the field of sustainable surf tourism can no longer be seen as a values-neutral undertaking but must instead be understood as a seductive experiment in the innately political processes of international development, neocolonial at their core. And in so doing, it joins mainstream development in deepening systems of oppression that have been sustained for centuries, by the consent and conformity of people with power and their ability to colonize minds and hearts with ideas, wages and promises rather than with weapons, whips and chains. And by labeling it “sustainable” and appealing to the “white surfer’s burden,” sustainable surf tourism has flown under the radar of much-needed and well-overdue critique, enjoying a sort of privileged space in the minds and hearts of surfers with even a vague interest in saving the world, and all of her non-white people living in “poverty,” too.

And that’s exactly where the many well-intentioned researchers and practitioners in the field of sustainable surf tourism have gone awry, misinterpreting the task at hand in crossing into territory that threatens to entrench surf tourism of all kinds, “sustainable” or not, as a colonizing activity and discourse, rather than strengthening its potential to transform historical-turned-contemporary practices of dominance and exploitation into meaningful experiments in cross-cultural engagement and alternatives to development for truly sustainable futures in the places where surf tourism happens.

I recognize that it’s inconvenient to self-reflect at this point, with sustainability certification frameworks and educational surf travel programs and all of this sustainable surf tourism infrastructure already created around a singular narrative of what we mean when we say the word “sustainable,” which unfortunately finds itself increasingly out of touch with the lived realities of the people and places it purports to save or, at the very least, help a little bit.

Inconvenient, indeed. But even more impossible to ignore.

Which is why I write this today, not as a game of blame-and-shame, but as an initial step in drawing deeper awareness to the realities we can change by bringing different perspectives to the table, and working together as a community to ensure our actions transform systems of dominance and oppression, rather than entrenching them beyond a point of no return. And while my words may be received as an aggressive “calling out” of those whose philosophies and practices I disagree with, my intention is that they be read as a “calling in” for all of us who care deeply about doing surf tourism better, learning from the decades of mistakes in international development and seeking alternatives outside the mainstream as the means to replace neocolonialism with respect for diversity of cultures, lifestyles and world views, as well as appreciation for subjective experiences of social well being, and the rich multiplicity of ways of being in the world that make traveling, and living, so special, indeed.


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