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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Surf tourism in West Africa: a Working Model for Responsible Tourism.

Sun, sea, waves, tanned bodies and relaxed attitudes are all part of the surfing lifestyle, but it has also come to my attention that tourism can be a part of the ‘gnarly’ world of riding waves.

Whilst researching alternative tourism activities in West Africa, I came across a great number of surf shops, surf camps and surf tours along the coastal areas in countries such as Senegal, Liberia and Ghana. These are little known projects, and not only take the tourist to some beautiful beaches, but also have a low environmental impact and provide economic and development opportunities to the local communities through empowerment initiatives.

I became interested in how the surf tourism model could be considered as an alternative, unique and fulfilling experience for those seeking to discover the local heritage of a destination whilst being sure that the local communities will benefit directly from their presence on the ground.

Let me set the scene:

“After first impressions, the destinations look like paradise on earth. White pristine beaches bordered by palm trees, rolling green hills dominated by lush untouched rainforest, the silence only disturbed by the birds calling after one-another and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, not to forget the sea at a constant warm temperature. As you look deeper into the local area, you will find friendly local communities, usually fishermen, who work hard to survive in the poverty stricken rural areas, children playing football on the beach who invite you to kick the ball about, a family having lunch outside on the porch who motion for you to come and taste a local dish, and everyone with smiling faces, showing that you don’t need much to be happy. You feel a sense of being part of the bigger picture, a sense of freedom, devoid of materialism and barriers, a feeling of, at last, finding the true sense of the word ‘living’.

Going back to your accommodation near the local surf shop, you hear the crash of the waves and feel an overwhelming need to be on a board, waiting for the swell so that you can get up and slide down the wall of water, trying to keep your balance but falling into the clear blue, warm water. You emerge into a soft breeze, dust yourself off and try again until you get it just right.”

Jesper, owner of a surf camp in Senegal adds to this: “Surfing in west Africa is something special. The sport has exploded the last 10 years, and therefore everyone is surfing. That brings many problems to all the famous surf spots around the world. In surfing jargon it's called localism. The people that live at the surf spot do not like that the tourists come and surf at "their spot". This leads to fights, negative atmosphere in the water and so on.”

He continues: “Senegal is very different, the locals are very happy for tourists to come. They welcome people in the water, talk and guide them. You will not see this in many places on the planet. Senegal doesn't have many ‘surf tourists’, and surfers who come to Senegal usually donate boards, wet suits, clothes and more. So it’s something special to surf here. This is one of the main reasons I moved here.”

Tempting hey? Well, not only are there opportunities to experience the above fantasy first-hand, but also you will be making a contribution to the sustainable development of the local community in the destination.

The surf shops in West Africa strive to train members of the local community to become surf instructors, therefore empowering them to earn a living for themselves and their family. Surf tourism usually being small-scale projects bring small groups of tourists to the area thus reducing the possible negative effects of tourism and nurtures the rise of local entrepreneurship to cater for the arriving guests. This, subsequently, boosts the local economy. Furthermore, all the produce used to cater for the guests are locally sourced, as well as the labourers who maintain the premises.

Jesper explains: “surf tourism provides many jobs for the locals. I employ six locals at the camp plus two more in the busy season. There is also more business for everyone living around the surf project. I think that is the main reason for the good atmosphere here.”

In terms of raising awareness towards the local heritage, it is needless to say that through involving the local community in the tourism project, the guest will experience the cultural aspect of the locality, by walking around the area and not being afraid to start chatting to an elder, the historical setting of the area will come into focus, and activities such as cycling, hiking or canoeing to areas where natural heritage is present will be a learning experience for anyone not used to these settings.

Most importantly, as a result of the increased interest to the local heritage, the local community will surely be inspired to protect it, not only because of a renewed sense of pride towards what they have always considered as ‘normal’ but also because of the economic opportunities that can be felt by conserving it and not destroying it.

Peter, founder of a surf shop in Ghana gives his opinion: "I feel that the development in of surfing in West Africa provides a somewhat unique opportunity to put forth a surfing development model that is truly responsible and built by locals. In the past, and in many places around the world, the surf infrastructure has followed a development model that is exploitative, although this exploitation is usually not intentional and there are good people involved. What has happened around the world is that foreigners stumble across a place in a developing country that eventually becomes a surf destination and by the time the locals have any idea about surfing or realize its potential as a business it is too late for them to get into the game. This results in a bunch of foreign owned surf businesses with very few opportunities for local ownership or locals people securing high end, well paying surfing related jobs. There is an opportunity to develop the countries of West Africa into surf destinations (the waves are there!) with an idea of local ownership or at least local/foreign collaborations in mind. This would provide a new, responsible way of doing things that respects the idea that local people have first rights to benefit from their local resources, which in this case are their beaches and some killer surf spots."

He continues objectively: "Training locals to compete with foreigners in the surfing business (surf shops, surf tours, surf camps and lessons) is a daunting task as cultural differences on how we communicate loom large. Lots of training is required for locals to understand what comes naturally to foreigners with regards to knowing what a surf tourist expects and wants and how to meet those needs."

Surf tourism, if managed properly of course, could be used as a working model to show how tourism can be used as a tool to alleviate poverty in local communities in destinations by boosting local economies, providing entrepreneurship opportunities, empowering members of the community and sourcing products and labour locally. It can be a means to raise awareness towards wealth of local cultural, historical and natural heritage not only to the visitor, but also to the local communities.

Why not see for yourselves how surf camps are set up, by checking out this example in Ghana.

Or if you desire to learn more about other projects out there, email us at info@westafricadiscovery.co.uk.

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