Who owns a surf break? Throughout modern surfing history there are many instances of waves being restricted to some or all surfers. In California, the military owned – and indeed still does own – vast tracts of coastline keeping civilians out. In Fiji Tavarua Resort held an exclusive lease to Cloudbreak for two decades. While in Hawaii the military controls areas of coastline containing surf breaks which are off limits to all but those wearing uniforms.
To most surfers the concept of excluding people from a surf break is repulsive; it’s akin to denying someone the very air they breathe so strongly do they feel about it. However it was not until I recently spent five weeks in the Maldives that I really started to question the issue of surfing exclusivity, who it affects, who benefits, and also who loses.
Understanding why a resort would try and gain exclusive rights to a surfing break is obvious to anyone who surfs but probably not to people who don’t. For the non-surfers, a surf break is best enjoyed with only a small number of people surfing it at any one time. There are only so many waves each day that break so if you are in the water with just a few other people you can pick and choose the best waves to surf.
Now, take a second and consider this hypothetical scenario. I am a wealthy forty-something man who works in finance and only get to surf weekends due to my demanding job. When I go on holidays I want to surf as much as possible and catch as many waves as possible. I don’t want to have to compete with younger, fitter, stronger surfers with a far greater ability and understanding of the surf than I have. So I book to stay at a resort with exclusive access to a wave. The only other people who will be in the water with me are those staying at the same resort, who have paid the same premium I have. Without competition, the odds are I am going to get my fill of waves.
Now consider another scenario, slightly changed. I am also a forty-something man who works in finance. I get up at 4:45am every day and drive to the beach to surf before I go to work. I commit to the surf no matter what the conditions are so I can maintain my fitness and skill level. When I go on holidays I want to surf the best waves I can, and my lifelong commitment to surfing means that when I arrive I can compete with whoever else is in the water for my share of waves. The only problem, however, is that the region I have booked my next holiday has only one world-class wave and a nearby resort has just been granted an exclusive license over it!
There are a few issues to unpack in the above scenarios. The first being how exclusivity limits certain waves to the wealthy. There are both philosophical and economic aspects to this: Should the rich have exclusive access to nature? What if the money helps the locals? The second issue, closely related to the first, is how exclusivity disrupts the way surfing hierarchies work. Surfers worldwide understand that commitment and sacrifice have a payoff: they ensure you remain competitive in the water and so secure your share of waves. The third issue is that this scenario isn’t wholly hypothetical, it’s happening in the Maldives right now.
The North Male region of the Maldives is where surfing’s argument of exclusivity is currently focussed. The region has eight well known and well visited surf breaks, two of which are considered exclusive or were until recently. Two more were earmarked for exclusivity, although that did not eventuate as the government has recently gazetted a law stating that if a surfing or diving point forms part of the leased area of a resort then that point will be excluded from the lease. Effectively it is not exclusive. However the same document also states that ‘new laws’ are to follow. So what appears to be happening at the moment is a state of transition where no-one really knows if a break is exclusive or whether it is freely accessible but going to become exclusive again in the future. Add to that the fact that certain resorts have sold packages to guests on the basis of them having access to an exclusive surfing break, only for those guests to arrive and find others surfing the breaks. Will they be refunded for their lack of exclusivity? Are other surf tourism operations following ‘Gentleman’s rules’ and not infringing on the existing arrangements?
My experience seems to suggest that the surf tourism operators are taking tentative steps toward surfing waves that have been exclusive in the past. While I did not see large groups of surfers descend on the previously tightly held exclusive spots, I personally surfed some of these locations and had no hassle from their guests or their management. In fact, quite the opposite was true. In one instance I was welcomed out as there was only one person surfing and he was happy to share a few waves.
You may wonder where the problem is when someone who’s paid for exclusivity willingly shares waves with two others who haven’t. The simplest explanation is that it’s a matter of degree; if instead of two people that person had 22 people joining him in the surf, thereby drastically reducing his wave count, I’d wager he would have been less than inviting.
At this point there are two rock solid certainties to consider, each opposing the other. 1) the world’s population will keep rising, and with it the surfing population, and 2) the market for exclusive surf resorts will also increase. With increasing friction these two aspects are rubbing against each other. In broader terms, the problem of exclusivity has nothing to do with wanting to surf a particular ‘exclusive’ wave and everything to do with wanting to limit the number of surfers in the water.
It’s been suggested that a Management Plan be put into effect to control the number of visiting surfers in the Maldives. Yet even the suggestion invites controversy as the Maldives makes 90% – yes 90%! – of its tax revenue from tourism, so why should the Maldivian people have to limit the number of visitors (surfers) allowed at any one time. Local arguments aside, a Management Plan is a system where the total number of surfers in an area is limited to ensure overcrowding is minimised. The visiting surfer stands to benefit from this and the local community could theoretically charge a fee and also derive extra income.
However there are very few management plans in existence and if there was one that worked surely it would have been implemented in the busiest surf breaks in the world already. Instead the only one I know of is the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG) plan in PNG. The system is great in theory, however there are already operators who have said they are not going to participate in the scheme and there is nothing that SAPNG can do about it. I spend a lot of time surfing and photographing in PNG and I’ll say this with absolute certainty, its surfing resources are relatively untapped so the Management Plan has never really been put to the test.
The only other sport that I can think of that has a similar management system is mountain climbing. While researching this article I spoke with a mountain guide who has worked in the Himalayas for nearly a decade, has summited Everest twice along with every other major peak on every continent. He explained that climbing permits for the major mountains like Everest are paid to a mountaineering tourism authority; you pay a fee and they give you a permit either as a group or individual. Funds are supposed to go to infrastructure and cleaning up the mountains (apparently there is a massive pollution problem on Everest and other popular peaks).
Unfortunately the Himalayan management system has not succeeded in reducing pollution or limiting the numbers of climbers. Corruption has played a major part in the system’s ineffectiveness and, according to my source, even if they increased the fee by ten times there would still be more people on the mountain this year than last. It’s simple, as the population grows, so too does the number of people wanting to climb. It’s the same as surfing; as the population grows so too does the number of people learning to surf. That just puts more pressure on locations that are already struggling to cope under the weight of numbers.
So what can be done?
Well, if you want to get uncowded waves there are a number of measures you can take. Firstly, forget luxury, forget time, and get adventurous. There are plenty of places out there left to surf uncrowded waves. You just have to be willing to engineer your lifestyle a little differently, forgo the cocktail waitress, chef prepared meals, and air-conditioning and you can still surf alone. And when you find one of these places, don’t tell anyone! Seriously keep your mouth shut and the camera in the bag. I know what you are thinking right about now, here is a surf photographer who makes his living from photographing waves telling us not to do the same. Well, I promise you, there are places I have been and continue to return to that I keep hush about and, year in, year out, I surf there without any thought to crowds.
Secondly, if the first option isn’t appealing, then do a little research. There are in fact surf charters and camps out there that have very few visitors (and great waves) but you have to be willing to go a little further afield and test out a few new locations. If you want a tried and tested guarantee then you are going to be there with everyone else who wants the same.
Thirdly there are simply too many people in the world – but that’s another discussion altogether…
So what about the issue of exclusivity? Well, on one level, if you look at the points above then who cares? At present there are other uncrowded spots so why worry about a handful of waves being held as exclusive? However the reason we should be worried is because it sets a precedent, a dangerous precedent. Each year as the surfing population grows so too does our spirit of adventure, and in turn the world shrinks. Surf breaks that were once unheard of will become popular and with that popularity will come people looking to capitalise financially out of it. And if exclusion is seen as the best fit by big business then the very thing that attracted most of us to the sport – freedom – will slowly be taken away, and only those with the bank balance, who can buy themselves into waves rather than commit to a surfing life will benefit in an evermore crowded planet.
p.s. I will sign off with a final photograph of Cloudbreak in Fiji during the annual pro-tour contest. The water was about to be cleared for the day so competition could start…
Enjoy your day,