Thursday, January 3, 2008

How Much Is Your Wave Worth?

(Published in Surf Portugal, January 2008)

What is a surf spot worth? That is a question that could change our sport – for better or for worse – over the next few decades. To a surfer, the value of a surfing wave is obvious. We know how rare they are. How many waves like Coxos are there in Portugal? Only one. So what is that wave worth? The simple answer is: hell of a lot of money.

The main problem is that governments don’t always realize this simple fact. Take, for instance, Madeira, where the wave in Jardim do Mar was damaged just for the sole purpose of building a massive concrete wall. There, surfers were the victims of political pandering. The politicians wanted a big project so that they could look good before the elections, and so they ignored the surfers’ pleas and built a huge pork-barrel project right on top of the surf spot. Now the wave is mostly gone, the town a good deal uglier, and everyone seems to have forgotten about Jardim. Everyone except the surfers, of course, and the local people who depended on their money from abroad.

If the surfers in Jardim would have been able to demonstrate to the government of Madeira that the wave there was worth, say, 20 million Euros over the next 10 years, perhaps they could have convinced them not to build the wall. With hard data regarding the high economic value of surf spots, surfers stand a better chance of preserving their wave heritage.

The Madeiran President reacted in a way that shows us that the world still does not always hold our sport in high regard. He called us “barefoot tourists,” and told us to “go surf somewhere else.” From these comments we can learn that (1) surfers are still seen as beach bums with no money, and (2) the government did not recognize the unique characteristics of the surf spots they were destroying. If surf spot preservation is going to become reality, these misperceptions will have to change.

Some new studies currently in progress seek to provide surfers with better data regarding wave value. The Surfrider Foundation has two such studies, one headed by Environmental Director Chad Nelson to study about the waves of Puerto Rico, and the other by Surfrider Australia’s Neil Lazarow, to determine the value of a surf spot to certain economies in Oz. Save the Waves is also managing a similar research project, focusing both on Mundaka Bay, Spain (which lost its wave for two years this decade, as well as the WCT event that went with it), and the country of Costa Rica. All are prime examples of the benefits of surf tourism towards economic growth.

Surfers are not barefoot tourists any more. The sport has grown to a multi-billion euro industry – and that’s just the clothing sales. Take tourism into account, and we’re talking about a major global economic force. I think back to my trip to the Mentawai Islands last year, where I boarded a flight in Singapore to discover it was filled – every seat – by surfers. They almost couldn’t fit all of the boards in the cargo hold. And to think that every one of these surfers was going to get off the plane, book a hotel room, eat in restaurants, and then hop on a boat trip – itself for upwards of 100 euro per day – and we have a major boon for the local economy. This was a great example of what good waves can bring, in terms of real wealth, for an economy – especially one that has little else to offer.

The visit to Portugal in October by Dr. Kerry Black of ASR Ltd., the world’s leading surfing reef manufacturer, was yet another reminder of how the perceptions of our sport need to change. ASR has projects going all over the world, and some of their reefs are being built for the sole purpose of bringing tourist dollars to a nearby area. So, if governments are willing to pay millions of dollars to build a new surf spot, why would they ever want to pay money to take one out? It doesn’t stand to reason.

Says Dr. Black, “if you build a 2 million Euro wave, the income generated for the local economy will bring about a tenfold return on your money in less than ten years. That’s just good business.” Good business, indeed. The trick is how to get governments like that in Madeira to recognize it. But then again, the more we move towards this goal, the better armed we will be to take on the next battle.

So what is a wave worth? The long answer is that every wave is unique, and thus each has different value. Of course, that value is also difficult to quantify. But suffice it to say that a surf spot is worth a lot more than people realize. The studies by the Surfrider Foundation and Save the Waves, and the ongoing projects by ASR, all have a striking similarity – they remind the world that surf spots are good for business. Perhaps for this reason, some day we will live in on a planet with more surf spots, and not less of them.

Carrying the Torch

Some people might be wondering what I've been up to lately, and why I'm no longer Executive Director of Save the Waves Coalition. So, allow me to explain.

After five years as ED of Save the Waves, I decided to pass the helm over to long-time board member Dean LaTourrette. No, I wasn't deposed by mutiny, or "asked" to leave. I simply moved to the Board of Directors, where I was subsequently elected Board President. Truth be told, I needed a break. Running a non-profit is a tough job.

Nonetheless, I think the move will be a very good one for Save the Waves Coalition. Dean is an immensely talented individual, with more practical business experience than I. My career started as an artist, and despite my best efforts to become a leader in the non-profit field, an artist I will always remain. In the end I realized that my strenghts would be better employed in other ways, both for my own personal growth as well as for that of the organization.

So, I continue to remain very involved in Save the Waves' daily affairs. I am also managing the project to produce our next film, All Points South, which I describe below. That, and remaining an integral part of the Eco-Warrior project (, which will certainly become yet another way to publicize the plight of our oceans worldwide.

For the past six months I have been living in Portugal (waves pictured above - yes, it has been good). This has always been one of my dreams. The time here has also helped me to promote our last film project, Lost Jewel of the Atlantic, here in Europe, as well as become more involved in the endangered wave issues in Northern Spain. I return to the US this month, and am excited to be coming home. I hope to see you all in the water.
- Will Henry, founder, Save The Waves Coalition