An article on capacity building, environmental conservation and waves in central america.
By Simon Witt
Tourism in the developing world has changed landscapes and created social change. Its impact depends on how effectively it can bridge the gap in cultural, social and economic differences between tourists and local residents. Mutual understanding is the main driver for raising awareness on growing social inequality and environmental degradation.
Most tourists traveling to Playa Gigante in the South-West of Nicaragua, travel for the purpose of surfing the perfect waves on the “emerald coast”. “I wanted to travel to Nicaragua before it gets too developed and crowded like in Costa Rica”, explained Larry (34) from New York on his arrival to one of the town’s foreign owned surf resorts. It is a common idea that tourist destinations will inevitably become unattractive for travelling in the future. More often than not uncontrolled tourism development has brought negative effects, like an increase in criminality, prostitution, growing economic inequality and environmental destruction that could permanently degrade the natural beauty that most tourists travel for in the first place. Within the global tourism industry little has been done to prevent negative effects of development, though tourists, tourism businesses, governments and local communities have the ability to sustain their recourses. Mutual understanding on the impact the tourism industry has on the local environments and its residents is the first important step towards destinations sustainability and can provide improved consciousness on global developmental issues.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere and the government recently declared tourism priority for national sustainable development. Aimed to fight poverty and for investments to penetrate into rural areas. One of those areas is Playa Gigante, a young rural fishing village with about 500 residents. After a Californian surfer set shore and started the first surf tour company, surf tourists started to arrive. Due to the area’s world class waves, warm climate and relatively low prices. Still fairly unknown, the town is on the forefront of discovery by a large group of travelers because of improvements in infrastructure and planned tourism projects. It hosts Central America’s most luxurious resorts and also provides for travelers on a budget, but there remains a wide gap between tourism development and benefits for the surrounding communities. The town represents a trend that has occurred on the pacific coast in Nicaragua and Latin America. That is often started by surfers, that are the first to market the destination to the outside world.
Although visiting surfers definitely interact with local residents, their level of mutual understanding is usually limited. Most surfers focus on hunting for the best waves in the limited amount of holidays they have available. However, they do care about the environment, sustaining the quality of beaches, reefs, clean oceans and a pleasant social environment that determines whether they enjoy their surfing holiday. Whether or not their visit to the area actually contributed to the towns preservation they may never know. These concerns for sustaining the surfing environment helped to create a growing group of surf tourists that looks beyond wave hunting. They want to learn about the country and their residents, becoming aware of the differences that exist between the wealthy and the poor and the impact of their travels on the developing world.
On the northern end of Gigante beach, local Nicaraguans have set up restaurants, rooms for rent and several new tourism businesses are in the making. In the same area sits the office of Project Wave of Optimism (WOO). A non-profit founded in 2006, run by foreign surfers working to bridge the cultural gap between surfers and local residents. Ensuring that the impact from travelers, specifically and originally surf travelers, is positive in coastal communities experiencing rapid growth due to tourism. This is done by supporting the community in development efforts they see best fit from their perspective. The project works with volunteer tourists that are committed to a minimum three months immersion into rural Nicaragua’s way of life, staying with a local family and working with community members on education, health, tourism and surfing. After a few weeks the volunteers are able to share their experience with visiting students and corporate workers that come to learn about the project and Nicaragua. After their period in Gigante, they feel they learned to see their Western lives in a different perspective. With respect to both lifestyle and culture, volunteer tourists learn how little you actually need and how much they own. It contributes to awareness on the unequal distribution of wealth on a global level. Meanwhile, community members involved in the project have the opportunity to interact closely with foreigners and improve their English language so they are more comfortable working in the tourism industry, diversifying their source of income that has traditionally been based on artisanal fishing and agriculture.
The tourism industry has often been developing way quicker than rural coastal towns can anticipate. WOO’s educational programs are aimed at children that have shown to be most receptive to capacity building efforts. So, it will take over a generation for a community to develop members that are able to take up tourism jobs beyond national minimum waged cleaning and cooking. It is difficult to provide for a family on a minimum waged job, as living in a coastal tourist area is often more expensive than it is inland. As soon as towns become accessible for a large amount of tourists, foreign investment and revenues from tourists will give way to a boom in infrastructural development, construction and resource use that might be scarce. Especially in the developing world, unplanned growth that exploits natural recourses has the potential to destroy the actual product that the tourists came for in the first place.
Regulating the influx of new investors and coordination amongst existing stakeholders is key to preservation of the tourism area and a thriving community. Stakeholders need to decide on the area’s social and environmental capacity to avoid reckless exploitation and destruction. Ín terms of surfing the destinations capacity is limited, where a breaking wave can only provide for a certain amount of surfers to ensure safety and pleasure. Up to 2011 the area of Playa Gigante experienced unplanned tourism development, determined by foreign investors and wealthy nationals. Unplanned growth has caused the depletion of fresh water resources, because of unequal water distribution, causing severe droughts; an increase in criminal activities, giving feelings of unsafety and bad publicity; privatization of surrounding beaches, making them inaccessible to the general public and issues in land ownership. Only since 2011 the municipal tourism board has started to revise tourism development, planning for the future and aiming to regulate tourism according to law. Since 2014 their policies are connected to a local community committee, which focuses on sustaining the tourism product of Playa Gigante. Hosting community meetings and runs a “small tourism businesses association”. The legal infrastructure seems to have arrived, but their actual effect in the Nicaraguan political context remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, surf tourists and the private sector have the ability to demand sustainability if they are aware of the direct impact on their surroundings. Awareness raising doesn’t happen by itself, so there is a need for a coordinated educational framework for the tourist, private sector and the community. This can lead to tourists preferring destinations that work to improve communities and environmental wellbeing. There is great potential for organizations like project WOO that bridge the gap between tourists and local communities to link their work to the private sector and visiting tourists. At the same time they could be increasing their general support locally and globally. Sustainable surf tourism has the ability to take the lead in raising awareness on the impact tourism has, because of the environmental awareness existing with surf tourists. Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world, and the biggest part of the world’s service sector. Travelling has always been central to the sport of surfing, bringing surfing to over 161 countries. Also, it is the fastest growing industry with 12-15% yearly growth and an estimated amount of 23 million surfers globally in 2014. The global surf industry is estimated to generate 70 to 130 billion dollars annually. Facts like these show the importance of surf tourism, and the impact it has to change newly discovered places. The tourism area in the developing world is the ultimate meeting ground for the global have’s and have not’s, but currently we are only using a fraction of the potential these meetings hold.
To contact Simon, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. A complete thesis will be available November 2015 and this research will be presented at the Sustainable Stoke Conference: Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World on Septemeber 19th and 20th at SDSU in San Diego.