Sustainability in Surf Tourism

position paper

An essay on how an environmental ideology turned into mass consumption.

Table of Contents

The ocean is the habitat of every surfer. The moment of riding a wave is perceived as having a deep connection with ‘mother nature’. Surfing has the power to bring people in close contact with nature. There is no other sport like surfing that literally emerges one into the environment. Like the quote of Kelly Slater, called to be one of the best surfers of all time, a natural love for the ocean is what surfing appears to be about (Ponting 2017). Therefore the surfing culture has often been regarded as environmentally conscious. But when looking at the surfing culture nowadays, it has developed away from this ideology in many ways (Hill and Abbott 2008, 275).

Alongside this environmental consciousness comes the longing for undiscovered and uncrowded waves. The dream of every surfer is to ride a wave which has never been ridden before. Every wave is a search for the the optimal surf experience in life. This desire has generated a large number of tourists who travel all around the world to chase the best waves (Krause 2012, 38). According to Ponting (2017) surfing has turned into a “colonizing form of tourism”. It all begins with some surfers ‘discovering’ a remote, not yet touristy place. They tell other surfers to come too and so the first surf tourists arrive. But it does not stop there. Surf tourism then expands into other sectors and finally turns into a commercial explosion of mass tourism. It literally sets in motion a process of tourism development in areas which are very ill prepared for large numbers of visitors and foreign investors. This often leads to life changing impacts on local communities and their environment. Firstly, the increased popularity of the region attracts foreign investments and initiates commercial development. Prices rise and local people are driven away from coastal areas. The mainly western invaders are literally taking over local businesses. Secondly, the mismanagement of the fast growing industry leads to some deleterious impacts on the local environment. Often there is no waste regulation or adequate sewage treatment, which leads to pollution hazards of the drinking water and the ocean (Krause 2012, 45-47). Next to these local issues, which are likely to be more important to the local communities, a more global issue arises with the transport of the tourists and goods to these destinations. The transport of tourists and goods all around the world is the most important component to sustain tourism. This transport, which often includes different kinds of transport with a large amount of emissions, highly contributes to global climate change (Buckley 2002, 418).

“Not to sound too deep or weird, but I think that the times when you really appreciate surfing are the times you’re really sort of becoming one with nature.” – Kelly Slater


What started as a lifestyle with some independent travelling surfers, now turned into mass consumption and a multi-billion dollar global industry with enormous environmental and social hazards (Buckley 2002, 407). Therefore this essay will focus on providing an answer to the following questions; Why has surf tourism turned away from the originally environmental conscious ideology of surfing? Which processes play a role in developing surf tourism into a demolisher of the ocean and its local residents? And lastly, is there a possibility that surf tourism can still be a good example for a sustainable approach to tourism?

In the debate about sustainability and tourism, I will argue that surf tourism is an important sub-sector of tourism to look at, as surfers often are initiators of tourism and commercial growth in remote areas. Moreover, I will state that when looking at the relationship and tensions between surfing, sustainability and tourism, one needs to contemplate the conceptualization of sustainability and the contemporary social processes of commodification and media fetishism. This exploration will give an understanding of how these processes play a role in the development of surf tourism turning away from the environmental ideology of surfing. Furthermore, by looking at the surf regulation program of Papua New Guinea and the certification program of STOKE Certified, I will illustrate that one needs to be aware of the social processes discussed in this essay in order to create a sustainable form of surf tourism.

This essay first offers an examination of the relationship between sustainability and tourism. This will provide an insight in the reasons why sustainability is applied in tourism and how it is commonly framed. Ecotourism, a popular way of framing and promoting sustainable tourism, transforms the so called crisis of cultural and biodiversity loss of mass tourism into marketable commodities. The concept of commodification will help to understand how normative ideas about tourism are created and how surfing has turned into a profitable lifestyle. Since media representations induce many of these normative ideas and spark the desires of surfers to travel to remote areas, it will be shown that fetishized media representations play an essential role within the commodification of surfing. The exploration of how surfing developed into a mainstream tourism sector will ultimately illustrate the importance of commodification and media fetishism in relation to sustainability in tourism. In the end, the cases of the surf regulation program in Papua New Guinea and the certification program of STOKE Certified will display the potential of surf tourism to create a market to support sustainability in tourism.

Sustainability and tourism

Tourism is booming. Travelling to the other side of the world, or just quickly visiting the neighbour country, has turned into a common social activity. However, what seems as an innocent act, has many life changing impacts on local communities and environmental diversity. The most striking examples of the economic, social and environmental costs of surf tourism can be found on many Indo-Pacific islands. The reason is mainly because these islands provide high quality waves with a high consistency of swell (Buckley 2002, 405).

Project Clean Uluwatu shows that Bali is one of the most striking examples. In 1974, the world famous surfer Gerry Lopez ‘discovered’ the waves of Uluwatu and put Bali into the mainstream spotlight of the surfers culture. This inspired many other surfers to visit Bali and surf that special wave. Ultimately an explosion of commercial development of hotels and restaurants occurred to satisfy the growing number of tourists from all over the world. As there were no policies or regulation programs, no boundaries were set to the commercial expansion of the island. Soon not only surfers came, but the message of a ‘new mecca’ also attracted many other tourists (Project Clean Uluwatu, 2018). For many tourist operators there was no time to build a proper waste and sewage system, so everything often is just dumped into the ocean. The disastrous effects of these actions are now seen on the beaches of the island. After every dry season, now not only the rain season starts, but the plastic season as well. The rain washes all the waste of the island through the rivers straight into the ocean. On a normal day during this season, tens of thousands of kilos of plastic are scattered over the beaches. Only part of the waste is washed upon the beaches, most of it remains in the water. Consequently, surfers now ride on waves of waste instead of clean water. This is not something that happens occasionally, the phenomenon lasts for about six months every single year (Maas and Graaf, 2018).

In order to provide the tourist industry with a more secure future, the concept of ‘sustainability’ has been widely introduced in tourism development. According to Cohen (2002, 268), “sustainability can serve as an ideological tool, empowering and legitimising the agents of sustainable tourism development. These agents usually possess, or claim to have, the authority to define the criteria of sustainability. Especially in newly opened tourist areas in developing countries, this often enables external agents, like state agencies or private entrepreneurs, to take control over valuable sites or attractive cultural practices in the name of sustainability, at the exclusion of the local population”. However, there is a lack of conceptualisation of sustainable tourism development, which lends it use and misuse in various ways (Cohen 2002, 268).

A widely distributed and accepted adaptation of sustainable tourism development is ecotourism. Ecotourism is often mentioned as the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. Scholars conceptualize ecotourism as “sustainable tourism with a low environmental impact” (Carrier and Macleod 2005, 315) and “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (Fletcher 2011, 444). Ecotourism is seen as part of a counter movement to standardized and conventional mass tourism, and the negative social and environmental impacts associated with it during the 1970’s. Back then, people already became aware about the fact that tourism can lead to exploitation of local communities and their environment. Viewed from this angle, ecotourism can better be understood as a new strategy for tourism development and economic growth, promoted and reinforced during the mid-1980’s as an opposition to regular tourism (Fletcher 2011, 445). This more ‘positive’ representation strategy of mass tourism quickly turned into a commercially valuable approach, which changed the term ‘ecotourism’ from a delimited concept into a brand to promote tourist destinations (Carrier and Macleod 2005, 316; Cohen 2002, 268).

The above mentioned vagueness of the term ‘ecotourism’ induces plenty of different definitions and explanations of what actually constitutes sustainability in tourism. However, what all these examinations have in common, is the fact that they define ecotourism as a) sustainable and b) nature-based. The essential question to ask here is; Who defines what constitutes nature and sustainability? Cater (2006, 24) argues that “there is a lot to suggest that, because of the origins of ecotourism lie in Western ideology and values, and its practise is frequently dominated by Western interests, the advocacy of ecotourism as a universal template arises from Western hegemony.” In the notion of ecotourism as a universal template and a hegemonic western construct, this ultimately raises the matter of power. Nature and sustainability are perceived differently all over the world. However, the internationalisation of ecotourism implies a certain universality of the concept, in which the Western conception of nature and sustainability is framed as the most powerful and legitimate one.

With the spread of ecotourism, sustainability and nature are generalized into a universal understanding and used as an instrument of power over scarce and relevant cultural and environmental resources by western investors. The ideology of ecotourism as ‘conservation-for-development’ is often used by western investors to legitimise tourism projects in non-western societies. Complications arise because the hegemonic western construction of nature and sustainability often fundamentally differ from the constructions by indigenous communities. The main difference lies in the fact that the western-imagined notion of ecotourism is attaching a financial value to natural and cultural resources, framing them as products to be sold on the global market (Cater 2006, 28-35). This alienated western representation of local communities and their environment, presents the commodity of nature in a way that ignores the socio-cultural consequences of ecotourism. “Put differently, commercial interests that profit from ecotourists used their power to shape the natural surroundings of local people, reflecting values and practices springing from North American and European culture and political economy” (Carrier and Macleod 2005, 324). In the notion of capitalism, ecotourism can thus be seen as just another capitalist expansion which transforms cultural and biodiversity loss into marketable commodities and sells them as touristic experiences (Fletcher 2011, 451).

In sum, ecotourism has a vital function in commodifying nature and sustainability. Ecotourism can be seen as a marketing strategy to promote ‘sustainable’ tourist destinations, rather than being a legitimate framework for ‘sustainable tourism’. This turns the concept of ecotourism into a complex socio-cultural experience, “shaped by the essential logic of capitalism, namely commodification” (Watson and Kopachevsky 1994, 644). By the means of that, the role of commodification within sustainable tourism will now be further examined.

In the debate about sustainability and tourism, I will argue that surf tourism is an important sub-sector of tourism to look at, as surfers often are initiators of tourism and commercial growth in remote areas. Moreover, I will state that when looking at the relationship and tensions between surfing, sustainability and tourism, one needs to contemplate the conceptualization of sustainability and the contemporary social processes of commodification and media fetishism. This exploration will give an understanding of how these processes play a role in the development of surf tourism turning away from the environmental ideology of surfing. Furthermore, by looking at the surf regulation program of Papua New Guinea and the certification program of STOKE Certified, I will illustrate that one needs to be aware of the social processes discussed in this essay in order to create a sustainable form of surf tourism.

This essay first offers an examination of the relationship between sustainability and tourism. This will provide an insight in the reasons why sustainability is applied in tourism and how it is commonly framed. Ecotourism, a popular way of framing and promoting sustainable tourism, transforms the so called crisis of cultural and biodiversity loss of mass tourism into marketable commodities. The concept of commodification will help to understand how normative ideas about tourism are created and how surfing has turned into a profitable lifestyle. Since media representations induce many of these normative ideas and spark the desires of surfers to travel to remote areas, it will be shown that fetishized media representations play an essential role within the commodification of surfing. The exploration of how surfing developed into a mainstream tourism sector will ultimately illustrate the importance of commodification and media fetishism in relation to sustainability in tourism. In the end, the cases of the surf regulation program in Papua New Guinea and the certification program of STOKE Certified will display the potential of surf tourism to create a market to support sustainability in tourism.


As mentioned above, ecotourism is often related to as a responsible way of travelling and improving the welfare of local communities. It is displayed as different from commercial mass tourism, as something existing outside the world of capitalism. Nevertheless, in the end ecotourism comes down to selling destinations and tourism experiences just like mass tourism (Carrier and Macleod 2005, 316). Even though it claims to, ecotourism provides no challenge to the dominant global system of neoliberalism and capitalism (Duffy 2008, 327).

The moment tourism destinations, their local people and the environment, are introduced into the flow of trade and integrated in the global economy, they turn into a commodity. This process of turning something into an exchangeable good is referred to as commodification  (Devine 2017, 635). According to Anderson (2017) “the concept of commodification can be boiled down to […] putting monetary values on things that don’t (or some would say shouldn’t) have them.” In the case of ecotourism, this thing commodified and turned into a marketable good would be nature (Duffy 2008, 327). Devine (2016, 635) argues that the commodification of nature through ecotourism can be seen as an expansion of capitalism. First commodification was limited to objects, services and products. However, ecotourism has found a way to also commodify nature as an exchangeable good, pushing the frontiers of commodification into new dimensions. Since tourism is a worldwide phenomenon dominated by transnational corporations, commodification of nature is nowhere more apparent than in ecotourism. Ultimately, ecotourism should not be seen as part of the commodification of nature, but more as the source of it (Duffy 2008, 329).

Nonetheless, it would be limited to state that ecotourism only commodifies nature. According to Watson and Kopachevsky (1994, 649), “when one speaks of commodification in tourism, this must be in term much broader than mere objects, and include services, activities, and experiences”. Commodification also integrates people, cultures and resources of the tourism destination into the global economy. In order to sell places and its people as products, even the identities of these places often are commodified. This often arises essentialized and normative ideas about what constitutes nature and local cultures (Devine 2016, 635). In the extension of this, Duffy (2008, 329) adds standardization and appropriation of goods and services to the conceptualization of commodification. This perception of commodification substantiates the idea that ecotourism is being developed in a manner to suit the global marketplace instead of suiting the needs of local communities. This reveals the structure of social relationships that arise as a result of commodification in tourism. Commodification in tourism creates a forced interaction between two static categories of people: the ones who supply, often the local community, and the ones who demand, often the western tourist. This relationship is perceived as asymmetrical, since the profit of commodified goods mainly goes to western investors and therefore maintains the inferiority of the locals  (Watson and Kopachechevsky 1994, 653).

The contextualisation of ecotourism as a mechanism of commodification makes it possible to see it sustainability in tourism as part of a broader set of neoliberal economic processes (Devine 2016, 635). Nevertheless, commodification alone does not explain the growth of ecotourism and the sustainable tourism industry. Watson and Kopachechevsky (1994, 650) argue that  “modern advertising, clearly, is the most powerful instrument of commodification”. Since advertising mostly is focused on profit maximization, it responds to and represents people’s deepest desires and fantasies, objectifying the identity of a distant place. These imaginaries often fail to represent the diversity of identities and the multiple narratives defining those places, and hide the asymmetric social relations produced by it (Devine 2017, 642). “To view a culture as static is to deny the dynamic nature of culture and therefore to deny the culture itself” (Dorsey et al. 2004, 759). In other words, commodification through the media reduces cultures to means of consumption and in this manner fetishizes them. In the next part, this essay will therefore illustrate the impact of media fetishism in the process of maintaining and initiating tourism.

Media Fetishism

In the globalized and mediatized era in which seeing is believing, visual images in the media and popular culture are significant components in commodifying tourist destinations, and constructing people’s impression and realities of the world. Within tourism, visual images are a powerful component in people’s holiday decision-making process (Iwashita 2006, 75). Visual images, from photographs, to television commercials and internet advertisements, are used as a pulling power by tourist operators, turning tourism into a mainly visual consumption (Jenkins 2003, 305). West (2014, 414) even argues that “tourism is a social form that is based on the visual consumption and reproduction of images”.

What West describes here, corresponds to the ‘circle of representation’ which conceptualizes the idea that images circulate within a culture and pervade certain meanings, associations and myths. Within tourism, images produced by marketers are at the very beginning of these circuits. They enter the public discourse through popular culture, advertising and the mass media. These images then enter the perception of the individual by several channels. This is where the pulling power of the media has its biggest influence. Mainly through these images, individuals are inspired to visit the promoted destinations. Once arrived at a destination, the tourist is likely to search for that projected image seen before and capture the experience with his or her own camera. The personal images often are copies of pictures they have seen before through the media. The personal visual images then are displayed on various personal media channels, starting the circle of representation over again. With this, not only the marketers can be seen as tourism promoters, but individuals and their personal visual images can also be seen as major motivators for travel (Jenkins 2003, 308).

Next to traditional tourism advertising in the media, including television commercials, glossy magazines and brochures, and internet internet advertisements, “popular cultural forms of the media” start to have an increasing role in tourism promotion. Popular cultural forms of the media include movies, novels and television programmes, which focus on telling a certain story and are not directly linked to tourism promotion by the viewers. But the popularity of these stories created “a growing worldwide phenomenon whereby tourists visit a destination as a result of it being featured in a book, film or on TV” (Iwashita 2006, 60). When looking at these mediated constructions of tourism in traditional advertising and popular culture, it is remarkable that tourism destinations often are portrayed in a favorable manner. As the actual poverty of a destination often is neglected, a discrepancy between the image and the socio-political situation of the destination grows. Thus, the media should not be viewed as a window to reality but should rather be seen as process of homogenization, decontextualisation and mystification of culture (Dorsey et al 2004, 761-762).

The media portraying a tourism destination in a favorable manner is essential to create a positive attitude towards a destination. As these mediated images drive touristic desires and practises, the importance of aesthetics increases. This drives the media to represent only the most ‘beautiful’ tourist experiences. Therefore, most images only show the photogenic side of a destination, ignoring the negative impacts such as environmental degradation (Carrier 2010, 677; Jenkins 2003, 305). The longing of the tourism operators for the most beautiful image is exactly what drives media fetishism.

Representing in order to sell a commodity, does not immediately include fetishism. Rather, fetishism refers to the process of presenting and representing something, and ignoring, or even manipulating, its background. In other words, fetishism creates a pervasive romantic view of something, in the case of ecotourism nature would be that something. Ultimately, an abstraction of context occurs in the sake of commercial gain (Carrier 2010, 674). Fetishism through the media creates a media-induced fantasy and withholds everything outside this fantasy. This eventually creates a manipulated and superficial identity of places and their people, in order to disguise the obvious poverty right beyond the image. Moreover, the growing economic competition is pushing similar destinations to create the most beautiful images, thus to fetishize places, in order to attract tourists (Britton 1979, 320). This disparity of the fetishized image and reality has the consequence that tourists experience a constructed and romanticized reality through the media, which determines their experience of a certain destination (Jenkins 2003; West 2014).

According to Carrier (2010, 677) these mediated representations not only fetishize tourist destinations, but they are also used to define ethicality and reality: “If colorful fish are used to represent healthy coastal waters, then environmental health will tend to be defined by the presence of those fish. Put more succinctly, images used to represent a state of affairs that satisfy ethical criteria make that satisfaction legible and come to define these criteria.” With this example, Carrier perfectly pinpoints the pervasiveness and power of media fetishism in tourism. This example illustrates that there is nothing ‘natural’ about tourism destinations, but shows that the nature of touristic experiences is defined by mediated and fetishized representations. Media fetishism in tourism not only manipulates the understanding of tourism destinations, it also constructs realities about many other aspects in life. Since tourism is linked to so many different aspects of life, such as race, the environment, class difference, authenticity and equity, people are manipulated to shape their understanding of the world through these media representation, rather than through realities (Iwashita 2006, 59- 62). Now that the concepts of sustainability, commodification and media fetishism in tourism are explored, the next part of the essay will analyze how these processes play a role specifically in surf tourism.

Surf Tourism

It is hard to define the origins of surfing. The story goes that the roots lie in Hawaii, with a cultural history of about 1000 years. The West was first introduced to surfing during colonial contact. In the 1880’s surfing was adapted in the West as a lifesaving sport. However, it was not until the 1960’s that surfing became popular in the dominant middle-class culture. During that time, surfers were seen as rebels who did not respect the rules and values of society. This image completely changed from the late 1970’s onwards (Lanagan 2002, 284-285). With the increased tensions of the twentieth century urban living, surfing started to emerge as an escape from the stressful and structured city life and as a return to nature’s reality (Ormrod 2005, 43). This notion of surfing ultimately increased the interest of sponsors and businesses in the sport. They appropriated and commodified the image of surfing into a desirable and, even more important, into a profitable lifestyle. The sale of clothing and other merchandises resulted into a profitable market, creating an imagination of surfing as an act of freedom and resistance. This fetishized notion of surfing through the commodification of the activity, allowed people all over the world, even if they never had surfed before, to feel connected to the surfing lifestyle (Lanagan 2002, 284-285). The major surfwear brands such as Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong have played a crucial part in this process (Buckley 2002, 411).

This contemporary position of surfing as a commodified lifestyle has been sold and accepted by a large part of society. Different scholars (Krause 2012; Buckley 2002; Hill and Abbott 2008) nowadays estimate that there are over 10 million surfers worldwide, a number which is increasing every year. As they are constantly searching for the best surfing conditions, many of them are travelling to exotic coastal destinations to satisfy their desires. En masse they visit the most famous beaches with, as they were told by others, the best waves conditions. This has turned surf tourism into the most important economic factor for the global surf industry (West 2014, 412). According to Buckley (2002, 407) surfing turns into tourism when surfers travel at least 40 km to the beach and stay overnight. Next to that, the main purpose of the journey needs to be surfing to label a trip as surf tourism. Within this definition of surf tourism, Buckley (2002, 407) makes the clear distinction between recreational surf travel and commercial surf tourism. Recreational surfers plan their own low key trip with a low key budget. They use their own transport and equipment and often stay in local accommodations or even their own tent. Since wave conditions always have been varying, this form of surf travel is as old as surfing itself. On the other hand there is the only recently prominent and popular commercial surf tourism. This mode of surf tourism is based on tour operators offering all inclusive “purchasable holiday packages”, without having to deal with the logistic aspects of the surf trip itself. Even though commercial surf tourism has its origin in the last decade, it is now a significant component of the worldwide tourism industry. The main reason for the increased popularity of commercial surf tourism is the development of the surfboard constructions have turned surfing into an approachable, fun and risk-free activity. Another reason is the increased welfare of Western nations. Many western civilians now are wealthy enough to pay for the surf holiday packages the tour operators offer (Buckley 2002, 405).

Even though surf tourism is a worldwide phenomenon, it mostly is located in particular areas with a high quality and consistency of waves. However, the surf tourism’s growth in these often perceived as remote and exotic areas, does not come without controversy. On the one hand, the tourism development has become an important component for local economies (Buckley 2002, 415). For many of these areas, surf tourism has become the main source of income. Without it, they could not survive economically anymore (Krause 2012, 45). But there is another side of the economic coin. Firstly, the increased popularity of a region attracts foreign investments and initiates an explosion of commercial development. Prices rise and local people are driven away from the coastal areas. Through this gentrification, the mainly western invaders are literally taking over local businesses. Consequently, the benefit of the surf tourism does hardly flow into the local economy. There are only a few locals who succeed to keep up with the real estate boom. Secondly, the mismanagement of the fast growing industry leads to some deleterious impacts on the local environment. Often there is no waste regulation or adequate sewage treatment, which leads to pollution hazards of the drinking water and the ocean. Providing fresh and clean drinking water often turns into a huge obstacle. Thirdly, the cultural exchange between the locals and surf tourists influences the local cultural practices positively and negatively. With the frustrations of local communities about the economic shifts, locals often start to search for other ways of income. In many of the surf tourism destinations, drugs, prostitution and crime are now common. Often local kids and young adults get involved in these practises. However, at the same time, many locals are introduced to the sport of surfing, and this often gives children an alternative to street life (Krause 2012, 45-47).

However, these perceived problems mentioned above are definitely not what fuels the desires of the surf travellers. No, it is the “television programmes, videos and specialist magazines [that] fuel the demand by illustrating these destinations, usually with professional athletes performing in perfect conditions” (Buckley 2002, 208). These media representations do not display the bigger picture, they only focus on showing the sunny side of surfing. This turns surf tourism also into a fetishized mediated discourse, highly relying on the reproduction and visual consumption of images. These fetishized images, which are transmitted through the media, inspire surfers to travel and chase the best wave conditions (West 2014, 414-415). Characteristically these surf tourism images are perceived to be hedonistic, since they are only showing the best waves, uncrowded conditions and the most beautiful exotic destinations. Tourist operators use this very consciously to intensify the tourism experience in advance, creating a fantasy, an utopian experience, to lure the surfers (Ponting 2009 in West 2014, 415). Consequently, these fetishized images shape the way surfers experience a destination. Surfers who travel to these destinations because of this induced fantasies, are likely to experience their trip distorted, since they are likely to see only what matches with the perceived expectations (West 2014, 415).

In his essay Pilgrimages to the Playas, Krause (2012, 44) argues that surf tourism shows many similarities with a religious pilgrimage; “Akin to pilgrimages, surf trips […] also take on ritualistic processes of separation from the mundane, entrance into liminality, and reincorporation into the familiar: surf tourists leave their mundane, structured society; become immersed in liminality […] where they mediate symbolically oppositional experiences”. By leaving behind their structured life, often with hierarchical systems, they experience a completely different domain of experience while traveling to remote beaches. The beach as a liminal space between land and sea, literally puts the surfer in a space between nature and culture. This juxtapositioning of surfing and pilgrimages illustrates the, nearly holy, significance of surf travel to surfers. Or at least it shows the perceived and ascribed significance. In the same essay, Krause (2012, 38) also states that the surfing lifestyle and its beliefs are shaped by commodification and cultural reproductions in the media. Consequently he refutes the reality of this holy feeling many surfers describe, and states that is should more be seen as a construct of commodification and the media.

The famous surf movie The Endless Summer (1964), perfectly illustrates the process of media fetishism in constructing the surf travel desire. The movie is about two surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, who travel all around the globe to find the perfect wave. They travel to many, in those times still unexplored, destinations to create an ‘endless summer’. With that, they embody the defining desire of the surf culture, namely the pursuit of the perfect wave. The Endless Summer was definitely not the first surf movie, but it was the first one to enter the mass media. Therefore it is seen as an anchor point in the development of surf tourism (Ormrod 2005, 30). “The Endless Summer defined our sport. For the first time the rest of the world would have a clear look at the surfing lifestyle” and “what everyone picked up on was the beauty of surfing, the harmonious union of man and nature […] and the sense of freedom to be found away from civilisation’s complexity” (Ormrod 2005, 39-40) were common reactions to this movie. With this expansion of surf related media, surfing also rapidly expanded on a global scale (Hill and Abbott 2008, 277).

This popular representation of surf tourism has turned surfing into a capitalist enterprise and a commodity for mass tourism. Since capitalism often has environmental exploitation as a result, this commercial form of surfing can also be related to an exploitation of the environment. However, this fundamentally contradicts with surfing as environmental conscious, a feeling common to the recreational surfer (Hill and Abbott 2008, 275). One could assume that the popularity of commercial surf tourism has eliminated this environmental consciousness. However, the rise of sustainable surf tourism, as a counter movement to commercial surf tourism, illustrates that the environmental consciousness is still embedded in the surfing culture. Therefore I will now discuss two exemplementarry cases of sustainable surf tourism, which show the potential of the environmental consciousness within the surf culture to turn surf tourism into a more sustainable form of tourism.

Sustainable Surf Tourism

O’Brien and Ponting (2013, 159) argue that “with much of the world’s commercial surf tourism taking place in remote corners of developing nations, the challenges of sustainability are particularly salient.” Sustainable surf tourism claims to be well aware of the negative effects of mass tourism. It positions itself as a better form of surf tourism, respecting the current and future social, cultural, economic, and ecological welfare of local people. Furthermore, it stresses that the surf tourism industry should move away from economically neoliberal approaches of conventional tourist development (O’Brien and Ponting 2013, 160). Buckley (2002, 421) argues that it all comes down to how surf tourism is managed and regulated. If this is done in a sustainable way, surf tourism could provide a long-term income for local communities and a key to development in the broader ecotourism sector. Based on ethnographic research on the Surfing Association in Papua New Guinea (SAPNG), O’Brien and Ponting (2013, 164-170) have posited a four-part framework design in order to show how surf tourism can achieve sustainable benefits for the environment and local communities. Their conceptualization of sustainable surf tourism provides some major steps in getting a better understanding of the debate about surf tourism and sustainability.

The first key they propose towards a sustainable way of surf tourism, is the “move away from western business models and economically neo-liberalist approaches to development”. This is because many western and alienated businesses not only ignore local communities and their needs and desires, but they also take over their economic development and exploit their resources. Other unsustainable characteristics of these business models are unrestrained growth, overcrowding and fierce competition. The second pillar of the framework is “the establishment of formalized, coordinated planning that recognizes the need for limits to growth”. This provides a big dilemma, since the neoliberal notions of commercial success are largely defined by growth. On the other hand, this should support the interest of the surfers, as this also tackles the problem of overcrowded surf zones and supports a sustainable use of the ocean. The third aspect of the framework are “systematic attempts to foster cross-cultural understanding”. This point is all about recognizing host communities as central players within surf tourism and letting define them their own involvement. Last but not least O’Brien and Ponting (2013) suggest to support “village-level sport development”. To develop the sport of surfing at the local community, so they argue, has the advantage of more mutual understanding and creates more willingness of local people to engage with surf tourism.  O’Brien and Ponting (2013, 171) stress that managing surf tourism, according to the above mentioned key factors,  creates a sustainable way of using the environment and, through community building and poverty alleviation, supports local communities.

In opposition to other surfing destinations, such as Indonesia, the surf management plan illustrates that the SAPNG is well aware of all the impacts surf tourism has on local communities and their environment. As stated before, the media have an essential role in representing and maintaining surf tourism. These representations have also ensured that Papua New Guinea was aware of surf tourism before it started on their island. The SAPNG also makes use of the media, but instead of fetishizing the circumstances, they actively use the media to communicate what comes along with surf tourism development. They focus on promoting their surf management plan, and not on fetishizing ‘protecting the environment’. Instead of ignoring the local struggles and the background of the destination, they make visible all its contradictions. This demonstrates that fetishism does not necessarily needs to be part of surf tourism. However, the most important aspect of the sustainable surf tourism framework, which makes it not just another commercial surf tourism example, is the regulation of growth and capitalist expansion. With this the SAPNG provides an economic alternative to the commodification of nature. With this they move away from the westernized constructions of nature and sustainability. Instead of using them as an marketing strategy to increase welfare, they use them to empower the local community to participate in sustainable surf tourism and create a collective benefit. Since the SAPNG sticks to this plan and does not give in to the commercial temptations of mass consumption, I assume that there is a strong environmental ideology embedded in the association.Another unique example which embodies the environmental ideology of surfing, is STOKE Certified  (Stoke Certified, 2018). It is the world’s first certification program specifically for surf tourism operators and destinations. The organization was founded by Jess Ponting, the director of the world’s first Center for Surf Research (Centre for Surf Research, 2018). This research centre focuses on research on surf tourism and issues of sustainability related to it. During prolonged research on this topic, Ponting (2017) created a strong environmental consciousness and will to change the surf industry from within; “Surfing is about being an activist for the preservation of coastal regions, a natural love for the ocean and nature is what the actual surf culture is all about!”. Arising out of this belief, STOKE Certified was founded.

What Stoke Certified actually does, is handing out sustainability certificates to tourist operators. Nevertheless, they don’t do that randomly. Throughout a period of three years, in collaboration with professionals and scientist all around the world, they developed a system of standards to determine sustainable surf tourism practises. The resulting certification program is based upon four major indicators, consisting of 142 criteria in total. The first major indicator measures the sustainability management. This indicator analyzes the extent of sustainability built into the management of the tourist operator in question. Based on this indicator, STOKE Certified examines whether an interpretation of the local environment, culture and heritage is provided, and whether promotional materials present a honest image of the destination. Next to that, the implication of sustainability in all levels of the management are measured. The second indicator focuses on social and economic impacts management. With this indicator, STOKE Certified emphasizes the importance of the local community development through surf tourism. The best practices contribute to alleviating poverty and improve the quality of life for local communities by keeping employment and purchasing local. Protecting the employes by paying above minimum wage and an internal policy against commercial exploitation of the locals are other criterions of this indicator. Thirdly, STOKE Certified examines the cultural heritage impacts management of a surf tourist operator. This indicator mainly explores to what extend a tourist operator appreciates the destination and contributes to the preservation of cultural heritage. With this criteria, STOKE Certified aims to encourage surf tourist operators to safeguard unique cultural heritages of a surfing destination. Here STOKE Certified expresses the significance of proper communication with the locals to ensure interpretations of their culture are accurate and respectful. Moreover, here they provide education about how not to commodify nature and culture. The fourth and last major indicator investigates the environmental impacts management. With sixteen criterions STOKE Certified measures the impact of a surf tourist operator on the environment. The criterions map the energy and water consumption, the pollution and the purchasing policy of a surf tourist operator. Furthermore, this indicator also examines the contribution to the conservation of biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes.

What this certification program underpins, is an alternative interpretation of the concept of sustainability. STOKE Certified conceptualizes sustainability not only as environmental, but also includes the local social and economic impacts. It perceives sustainability not only as environmental, but also includes the local social and economic impacts. With this perception, STOKE Certified provides an alternative to the commodified interpretation of sustainability as a simple marketing term. With the certification program they address many of the negative impacts of surf tourism and provide tourist operators clear perspectives on how to turn away from mass tourism and support a more sustainable way of tourism. With the indicator of the cultural heritage impacts management STOKE Certified shows that they are well aware of the commodification processes within tourism. Instead of interpreting it as a fixed global matter, they provide practical solutions for alternatives.

Like the regulation program of the SAPNG, STOKE Certified also makes use of the media to distribute their mission and vision. However, when I look at the visual images they use, I only see ‘beautifully’ staged pictures of surfers riding an uncrowded wave. The surf tourism operators which have been rewarded with a certificate, do not show the bigger picture of the destination either. With this, STOKE Certified makes use of the same fetishized images as commercial surf tourism. On the other hand, they do not frame surfing as a commodity in the same way commercial surf tourism does. It looks more like the images are used to show how beautiful the ocean, nature, local communities and surfing could be if we would all support their sustainable way of tourism.


Nowadays surf tourism, and tourism in general, seems to be an ordinary part in society. The example of Bali, however, shows that it is not an innocent act. Enormous environmental and social hazards are the consequences of tourism. Where surfers go, a mass tourism industry emerges. Surfers repeatedly are the first to ‘discover’ remote and untouched areas and they often build the fundamentals for a commercial explosion. First it is only surf tourism, but then it expands into other sectors and finally turns into mass consumption. Ecotourism, the marketing term for sustainable tourism, is often used as a fetishized brand to increase tourism consumption. External tourist operators use it to legitimace their activities while taking control over valuable and attractive cultural sites. Moreover, they also claim to have the authority to define the criteria of sustainability. This turns ecotourism into a hegemonic western construct which generalizes sustainability and nature for commercial interests. Even though it claims to challenge the dominant global system of neoliberalism and capitalism, it does not. Ultimately, it can be argued that ecotourism has a vital function in commodifying nature and sustainability.          

When commodification is introduced into the discussion of tourism and sustainability, it seems less convincing that tourism is an embodiment of freedom and personal choice of western individualism. Sustainable tourism way more exemplifies modern consumer culture which is shaped by the essential logic of commodification. As shown in this essay, surf tourism is no exception to this process. In fact, the surfing lifestyle is very suitable for commodification. Surfing embodies two aspects, which on their own, already are very romanticized; First the idea of escaping the everyday urban life, and second the notion of surfing as an act of freedom and connection with nature. However, commodification alone does not explain the immense growth of surf tourism in the last decade. To get a better understanding of this growth, this essay has stated that commodification of sustainable tourism needs to be examined in combination with the concept of media fetishism.

Fetishized media representations in modern advertising are the most powerful instruments of tourism commodification. Beautifully staged visual images, only showing the photogenic side of a tourist destination, are used consciously by tourist operators and marketers to drive people’s desires and economic growth. Therefore media representations in tourism can not be seen as a window to reality, but should rather be seen as a process of homogenization, decontextualization and mystification. Fetishism pushes the limits of these processes by creating pervasive romantic realities. This is not restricted to tourism only, it also manipulates our understanding of other aspects in life. In surf tourism, visual representations of riding a wave often even are perceived as hedonistic. The movie The Endless Summer illustrates that this holy feeling is more a construction of media fetishim than a feeling based on reality. The juxtapositioning of surfing and pilgrimages illustrates the influence and power of fetishised images on the construction of the reality about surf tourism.

The popularity of surfing has turned it into a demolisher of coastal regions and its local residents. This essay has argued that this popularity has been increased by the means of commodification and media fetishism. These processes have played a big part in creating a discrepancy between the ecological conscious ideology of the recreational surfer and the economical desires of the commercial mode of surf tourism. Even though commercial surf tourism seems to be superior to recreational surfing, the examination of the certification program of STOKE Certified and the surf regulation program of the Surfing Association in Papua New Guinea, illustrate that there still is an environmental conscious ideology within the surfing culture. These two unique examples manifestate that surf tourism has the potential to provide alternatives to mass tourism. Within the debate of tourism and sustainability, these examples gives a better understanding of the first stages of tourism. If this first stage, the surfers stage, could be turned into a sustainable way of tourism, it could have big impacts on the whole tourism industry and show the potential to create a market to support sustainability in tourism.


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