The beaches of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, are lined with dozens of surfers, many of them who have traveled from thousands of miles away to get their own shot at the Central American town's mythic waves. Once the sun goes down, they oscillate between beachside bars and bonfires. With Nicaraguan Toña beer in hand, they lounge in a hammock in a budget hostel, and mill around town, eating local food and chatting with locals.
Designed to cater to the growing number of surf tourists, Maderas Village sits just steps from the shores of Playa Maderas, a small town that neighbors San Juan del Sur. This boutique hotel charges upwards of $150 a night to stay in a country that was described by the World Bank as among the poorest and least developed in Latin America.
In San Juan proper, there's a craft brewery started by a handful of 20-something Americans, all of them from the East Coast. The brewery's website says it exists to satisfy "thirsty travelers" with a goal "to create a craft beer culture in San Juan del Sur." According to Santander Bank, Nicaragua saw $840 million of foreign direct investment in 2014, partially thanks to incentives the country's rolled out to attract foreign business.
According to a World Tourism Organization report, in 2013 over one billion international tourists traveled the world. Adventure tourism—travel that includes elements of physical activity and interacting with the natural environment, like surfing—is a rapidly growing subset of the larger and also quickly growing tourism industry. Adventure tourists spend, on average, $3,000 per person on trips that are typically eight days in length.
In addition to tourists, American Baby Boomers are retiring to Latin America in droves. As retirees look for locales where they can stretch their 401(k)s and live better than ever, they're heading to countries south of the border like Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
Kristin Lawler is a sociologist who studies the image of the surfer in the American imagination and its role in both radical culture and capitalism, specifically the way it's used to sell an image. "It's this ultimate image of freedom," Lawler says, adding that the image serves as the antithesis to many of the demands of our modern lives. And that image sells—everything from movies, travel brochures, and deodorant to foreign brands across Latin America.
Surfing doesn't just sell physical stuff though. It's can also be used to help market locales, bringing tourists and ex-pats from around the globe to small towns located on foreign beaches. The large population influxes that these phenomena produce can lead to a variety of issues.
"The town was small and the water was clean, but slowly but surely, surf schools popped up, and the economy around surfing and board rentals started," says Connie La Croix, an American from California who moved to Sayulita, Mexico, in 1998 to open a hostel. She says life in Sayulita was "still doable, still comfortable" until around 2011, at which point the small beach town began to draw an increasing number of tourists. Those visitors created traffic jams on the small cobblestone roads that feed the city, and caused a strain on the city's resources.
A 2009 study on global mobility found that "Sayulita has become transnationalized ... by its real estate market, which is now mainly advertised for potential clients in the north. These marketing campaigns have [rendered] property ownership virtually inaccessible to the local population." Even in 2009, property prices started to reach into the millions of dollars in Sayulita, where average homes used to cost just a few thousand dollars.
Once tiny fishing villages like Sayulita and San Juan are touched by surf tourism, they begin to transform culturally. Nick Towner, a lecturer at the Auckland Institute of Studies in New Zealand whose doctoral work researched the isolated effects of surf tourism in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia, explains that, "after a while, you start to see a shift in the community. They sell their nets and the younger people don't fish anymore. Now they're dependent on surf tourism, but that's seasonal."
Communities that once relied on their own skills for subsistence are now dependent on tourism, an outside force that naturally waxes and wanes. Towner's work also found that younger generations begin to adopt both the appearance and behaviors of the tourists they see. He explains that they begin to wear board shorts and sometimes turn to activities like drug dealing to acquire iPhones that they can't otherwise afford.
Surfers often head to exotic locales on vacation with the intention to relax and escape, often turning to drugs and alcohol in the process, a trend reflected in the popping up debauchery-fueled bar crawls like San Juan del Sur's Sunday Funday. Local kids, however, don't understand that the tourists' vacations are just that—vacations. What younger generations of locals perceive as a lifestyle is really just a two-week break from what is likely a job that involves sitting in front of a computer hours on end and a dull commute to and from an office every day.
Towner postulates, however, that most locals likely view surf tourism as a positive thing because they're getting enough of the economic scraps to feel like they're benefiting from their presence.
Ariel Davilla, a 21-year-old who has been living in San Juan del Sur for 12 years and who has worked as a surf instructor for the past five years, sees it positively. He views tourism as "totally perfect" because of the increasing employment opportunities it has brought to his home—the more that tourism increases every year and the more foreigners who move there, the better. When it comes to the surfers themselves, Davilla says they are helpful and "really cool."
While locals like Davilla certainly do benefit from what surfing has brought—both jobs and a passion for a sport previously unknown—surf tourism remains an industry in which entrepreneurship and management is largely white. Locals give the lessons for white-owned surf schools, pour the beer in cervecerías started by Americans, and clean the rooms in hotels and hostels run by Canadians. While there is some economic benefit to be had by locals, the vast majority goes to interlopers from the north and with money comes power, with power comes influence, and with influence the culture of the fishing-villages-turned-surf-towns begin to change.
Is there, then, a way for the cultures to blend in moral, ethical, and non-neocolonial way? Jess Ponting, the director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University, developed a five-point framework for analyzing and creating sustainable surf tourism that includes surfing itself.
"Getting local people to surf is a power equalizer and puts them in a position to understand what surfers want. It also demands respect from visiting surfers," Ponting explains. Ponting outlined the other four steps in a 2014 paper: a move away from economically neoliberal approaches to development; collaborative planning between locals, governments, and organizations that includes a limit to a location's growth; a focus on cross-cultural understanding between foreigners and locals within the tourism system; and a contribution on the part of tourism organizations to alleviate poverty in the country they're working in.
On the individual level, Ponting advises surfers to be conscious about the places they visit and to consider the effect their activities and purchases are having. He particularly urges surf tourists to take a hard look at the places they choose to stay, noting that accommodations are an area where tourists can drive demand. Renting an Airbnb in a foreign country from a host who lives in California, for example, circumvents local taxes and does the town a disservice while supporting a homeowner who is already wealthy enough to own multiple properties and spend most of their time in the United States.