It’s that moment of weightlessness as your board drops down the face of a wave, accelerates and you glide effortlessly over the water. That feeling is so intoxicating that some spend their entire lives chasing it, a hunger that you can only temporarily satisfy. As Thad Ziolkowski writes in his book ‘The Drop’, about the addictiveness of the sport, “The freedom of surfing is oceanic captivity. The first wave, the one that creates the surfer, is bondage.”
However, surfing can be enigmatic even for surfers. Is it a sport? A piece of performance art? Self-therapy? At the very least it’s a reprieve from the stresses of modern life. It is what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow; a mental state in which a person is so fully absorbed in enjoying an activity that their sense of time becomes distorted. He says that in the long-term, consistently being in a state of flow can lead to happiness, personal development and self-growth.
Although surfing has long been seen as a pastime for slackers, beach bums and stoners, with the addition to the Olympics, it is finally getting the recognition that it deserves as a legitimate sport.
It takes stamina to paddle out into the ocean, balance and coordination to dance across the undulating wave face. Unlike the manicured grass of a football pitch, our playing field is dynamic and constantly moving, shaped by the wind, the seafloor and wave energy generated from thousands of miles away. By plugging into it we are making a primal connection to the ocean.
While surfing doesn’t fill stadiums with rabid fans who buy jerseys and T-shirts, it is not without its monetary value. Surfonomics is the discipline that attempts to quantify the market value of waves, to surfers and businesses, as well as their non-market value, or how much people will pay not to lose them. This can be used to protect coastal areas from overdevelopment, pollution, climate change, erosion, and other threats.
For example, a case study by the non-profit Save The Waves in Uluwatu, Bali showed it averages 240,000 annual visitors, each spending an average of $150 per day. This contributes $36 million each year to the Balinese economy just from this single wave.
Although Phuket doesn’t have the quality of waves that Bali does, you can look at the complete ecosystem, including the waves, beach, ocean, reefs, coastline, trees and marine life to determine an economic value.
Creating a valuation like this has been an important tool in protecting surfing breaks like Rincon, Puerto Rico which was being threatened by condo development, or Trestles, San Clemente, which was under consideration for a new road. By quantifying the value of these waves the Surf Rider Foundation successfully showed how the loss of surf tourism would negatively impact businesses and hurt the local economy. By using surfonomics not only were they able to stop the development of Rincon, but it was also turned into a marine reserve. (If you would like to help protect waves under threat download the Save the Waves App).
However, other non-economic values come from the sport as well. For example, surfing creates a community of like-minded people who care for the environment. Recent research has also shown that connecting with nature can reduce your stress and have a positive impact on your health. Also, as Ziolkowski points out in his book, that while surfing is an addictive activity, it can keep people from getting involved in more self-destructive addictions or help them to recover from one.
While surfing may not have played a major role in Phuket’s economy in the past, the sport is gaining popularity according to Tim Campbell owner of Talay Surf in Bang Tao. “Last year saw the boom of surfing amongst the Thais and now in 2021 both locals & expats are getting into it especially with the closing of many indoor activities, the beach & surfing is seen as a healthy option.” Although Phuket is not a world-class surfing destination in 2013, Surin was good enough to take 47th out of the best 50 surf spots in the world according to CNN Travel.
One of the greatest failures of modern-day capitalism is that it refuses to account for negative externalities. An externality is a cost or benefit that is not paid for by the producer of a good or service. While new hotels and condo developments can bring in immediate financial gain, when not done correctly they can also create negative externalities that disrupt and destroy the pristine natural environment and the benefits that come from it. To live in balance with nature, we must correctly value the services that it provides. It is only then that we can understand the true cost of what we are losing.
As the popularity of surfing grows maybe in the future, it will provide Thailand with a new crop of Olympians and gold medalists, but perhaps more importantly it will create a new generation of environmentalists.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.