By Cole Williams

My research will investigate the sustainability of the surf tourism industry for destination communities in the Global South and develop new destination governance strategies with the aim of improving the lives of local populations.  This involves analysing the flow of surf tourists from the developed world to the less developed world where, in many coastal towns, surf tourism has become the primary industry and livelihood for local communities. A vision of wonderland constructed by the surf media and surf tourism industry of perfect uncrowded waves in remote tropical locations which, along with overcrowding at surf breaks in developed nations, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of surf tourists in recent years. However, in many cases, the local community have been written out of the narrative and the socioeconomic and environmental impact of the industry has been largely ignored.

With the relatively new expansion of the surf travel industry, a new economy in many coastal communities across the world has been created, contributing to local capacity building and livelihood diversity through tourism rather than a reliance on fishing or agriculture. However, it has been argued that, due to the application of a neoliberal development model in many coastal towns that are dependent on surf tourism, the impacts have not all been positive.

Photo by Cath Leo

Benefits are not evenly distributed within the community, with many foreign residents dominating the industry. Resource and labor exploitation is common and local populations have been displaced from their land, the foreshore has been privatised, and beach access has been restricted. In some cases, the surf tourism product itself—the wave—has also been privatised.

However, despite the reported negative impacts on destination communities, surf tourism scholars to date have not adequately addressed community perspectives of tourism or sufficiently engaged the local populations in their research.

My research plans to employ an ethnographic case study in Panama, a region which has been understudied in surf tourism research despite its significance as a primary industry in many coastal communities. My research will critically examine resource management by engaging key stakeholders in the industry. However, it will also approach an analysis of the impacts of tourism by engaging the local community outside of the surf industry to understand their attitudes and perspectives towards tourism. In this way new insight will be gained into the social impact of surf tourism on destination communities. Subsequently, through community engagement and the development of new destination governance strategies, my work aims to improve the lives of marginalised community members in tourism destination communities.

Happy kids in Panama

*Panama opened its borders to tourists in March of 2020 and reported record numbers of surf tourists in the 2021/2022 Caribbean high season, illustrating that surfers are an extremely crisis resistant component of the tourism sector.