The existence of a surfing wave near a place where people live can bring money into the local economy. This adds an extra, indirect value to that wave over and above the intrinsic value of just being able to surf it. The surf spot is an attraction to outside visitors who come to the area not just to enjoy surfing the wave, but also to watch other people surf it, or to accompany somebody who will be surfing it.
For example, when there is an important international contest you sometimes get a huge influx of people into a small coastal town – not just spectators, but photographers, movie-makers, journalists, competitors’ friends and family and, of course, the competitors themselves. All these people need to eat, drink, sleep, drive around and put wax on their boards while they are in that area. They bring money that was earned somewhere else, and spend it in local hotels, bars, restaurants, car-hire agencies, car parks and surf shops. If the surf spot were not there, these people would not come. They would take their money and spend it somewhere else.
So who benefits from all this money being brought in to the local economy? The answer is the people who own or work in any of the establishments where the visitors spend their money. A lot of these people might themselves be surfers, especially if we are talking about surf shops, surfboard manufacturers or surfing schools. If the spot is destroyed, polluted or degraded for some reason, the surfers in the town will not only suffer because they won’t be able to surf it, but they might also suffer because their jobs depend on that wave bringing money-spending tourists into town.
Often it is the second group of people – those who don’t know or care about surfing – that have more influence than the surfers themselves over whether or not some scheme, such as a concrete structure, dredging operation or sewage works will cause a detrimental affect on the waves. Therefore, it is essential that these people be convinced that, just like yacht harbours, golf courses and factories, surf spots can also be a source of money.
Experience shows that most people responsible for a scheme that ruins a surfing wave do not understand the value of that wave in the same way that we do. They don’t understand the intrinsic value of the wave; they can only see the extrinsic value – that the wave is a means of generating money which will be subsequently spent on something other than surfing. Unless the value of the wave is spelled out to them in monetary terms, they will think it is valueless.
Therefore, the most effective way of making sure surf spots don’t get destroyed or degraded is to simply point out that they are an important means of bringing money into the local economy and a lot of people might ‘suffer’ if the waves were taken away. Surveys and ‘surfonomics’ studies like those mentioned above are gaining momentum. A body of literature is beginning to build up in scientific journals, conference proceedings and other publications, which will be read by coastal engineers, coastal planners and other potential wave-ruiners.
There is one problem with the above approach: what happens if a world-class surfing wave exists in an area where virtually nobody comes to visit and there are no international contests? In this case, the surf spot would have no extrinsic value and therefore be apparently worthless to those people who might decide to ruin it.
Spots like this do still exist. Some have only recently been discovered, and others are either too cold or inaccessible to ever be popular with surfers, even though they have been known about for years. In the UK, the prime example is the north of Scotland and the Orkney Islands. Here, the quality of the reef and point setups really is world-class, but the number of surfers has always remained much smaller than in other parts of the British Isles. The area contains a very low permanent population, is freezing cold and dark in winter, tricky and expensive to get to, and swell and wind conditions are very difficult to predict.
The other classic example is just a few hundred miles away in Madeira. Even though Ponta Jardim was undoubtedly a world-class wave and perhaps one of only a handful of true big-wave pointbreaks on the planet, the surfing world was largely unaware of its existence. That is, until it was too late. The fact that Ponta Jardim was generating almost no money for the economy of Madeira meant that it was worth nothing to the local government, who blatantly destroyed it. Just to see what we are up against, according to Carlos da Silva, Associate Secretary of Tourism on Madeira: “We don’t believe that tourism on the island will depend ever on surfing.”