Words by Ben Bryant
It goes without saying that we all value our surf breaks. We value them for their beauty, for their energy and for the joy they bring us. But what is the financial value of your favourite spot, and why is that important? This is where ‘surfonomics’ comes into play.
Essentially, surfonomics aims to document surfing’s financial contributions to local and regional economies in order to determine the economic value of a surf break to local communities. Putting a figure to a wave enables decision-makers to make better choices to protect their coastal resources.
Much of the work around surfonomics has been carried out by Save The Waves Coalition, an organisation established to protect global surf ecosystems with a mission to safeguard 1,000 such locations by 2030. Unsurprisingly, the number-crunching required to put a value on a specific wave is seriously complicated, involving words like ‘heteroskedasticity’ and calculations such as:
Some of the world’s best-known surf spots have been assessed, and the results may surprise you.
Californian cold-water monster Mavericks generates US $24 million annually for the local economy
Californian cold-water monster Mavericks generates US $24 million annually for the local economy. Not bad for a wave that doesn't work all that often, and where most visitors are spectators, not participants. Uluwatu brings in a whopping US $35 million a year for the Balinese economy. Brazil’s Guarda do Embaú is valued at US $4.2 million annually, Spain’s Mundaka up to US $4.5 million, and the most recent study, Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica, returned a value of US $14 million a year.
Once you can ascertain the value of a surf break, you can weaponise this information as a defence against development.
Over the years, many world-class waves have disappeared thanks to human meddling. Some of these waves could well have been saved by applied surfonomics. The Portuguese island of Madeira has seen more than its fair share of lost waves.
Despite the best efforts of numerous campaign groups, the construction of breakwaters and marina developments has decimated some of the Atlantic’s finest waves. We caught up with Save The Waves’ founder, Will Henry, and asked him if surfonomics could have helped protect these precious assets: “Yes, the damage to the wave in Jardim do Mar, as well as the damage to the wave at Lugar de Baixo and the complete obliteration of Punta Delgada in Madeira, could likely have been prevented with the data provided by surfonomic studies that came later.
"I spent an exhaustive year-plus in Madeira speaking to government officials, who are of course much beholden to business interests, about the fact that if the surf spots were destroyed or damaged, they would be eliminating potential revenue sources to their economies. I likened what they were doing to golf courses: they would spend many millions on a new course to attract tourism dollars, but failed to realise that they had a tourist attraction that already existed and hence cost no money to develop.
"The problem is that I did not have data to back up my argument. The officials there called surfers 'barefoot tourists' and claimed they spent no money, camped on beaches, and added little benefit to local economies.
Surfonomics reveals that to save the waves, all you have to do… is surf them.
"The first surfonomic studies, conducted by Save The Waves Coalition and The Surfrider Foundation, proved them wrong — but not in time to protect the waves of Madeira.”
The first public impact of surfonomics was seen in 2001 when the then CEO of Surfrider Foundation, Chad Nelsen, enlisted a Duke University economist to develop an economic impact assessment for a waterside condominium project in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Footings and sea defences risked changing the sediment flow around the beach and potentially destroying the wave.
Chad and co demonstrated just how much revenue was being generated by visiting surfers, eager to experience Rincon’s reeling rights. As a direct result, construction was stopped, and the authorities established Rincon as a national marine reserve.
In 2014, surfonomics was a major contributing factor toward Peru’s ground-breaking Ley de Rompientes, — Law of the Break — making the South American nation the first country in the world to give its waves legal protection. Under the law, the development of infrastructure, oil and gas exploration and fishing activities that could harm surf spots were restricted. Since its passing, the law has been enacted on numerous occasions to protect Peru's world-class waves.
While surfonomic studies are currently limited to the world’s best-known waves, the more this field of economics is developed and understood, the more likely we will see trickle-down standardisation and formulae that can be easily applied to our local surf spots. This, in turn, will help protect the waves we love among the ever-increasing demands on our coastal ecosystems. Surfonomics reveals that to save the waves, all you have to do… is surf them.
Click HERE to learn more about the work of Save The Waves Coalition and view all their surfonomic assessments.
Cover shot of Maverick's by Manu Miguelez.