I sit here pondering probably my 24th attempt at a lead paragraph, still pyjama clad at 11am, crying newborn and all the sleep deprivation that comes with it, unfortunate ‘home-made’ coffee and an un-touchable pub a stones throw from my home office (study nook in the kitchen). My world, like many of those around me has changed before our very eyes, my mind wonders to all those empty waves going unridden and how long it will be before I get a chance to head overseas again! At least we are stocked up on toilet paper…
Anger, mental anguish and anxiety would follow immediately after I learnt the plans our government had for our nation. At the time, the questions I had seemed ignorant, selfish and maybe delusional, but how does one react to the worst global crisis in history that hasn’t started with a bomb going off?
For a person that started in surf travel during the last global financial crisis, I’ve sort of experienced hardship in a non-essential industry before. Back then a smart ass nineteen year old would observe the GFC as a reason for everyone to escape to paradise and leave all your problems at home (if you could afford it). But now, even if you have a reason or not, the fact is, we can’t!
For how long? Nobody knows….maybe early 2021?
A slightly more mature me, who now understands the world a little better and what travel means to a lot of people can only wonder what impact this crisis is already having and what lasting affects it has in the long term. Both negatively and positively.
For hundreds of overseas surf tour operators like Kadu Maia from Mentawai Surf Charters it means a complete hold on all operations across two reputable surf charter vessels that would otherwise be servicing their customers dream surf trips right now. “100% of our business has been affected, our boats cannot even leave Padang harbour, we are rescheduling all trips to 2021 and are unsure when we will be able to operate again. Right now, the plan is to live day by day, reducing costs where we can and surviving this”.
Unfortunately, from a macro level, the same sentiment can be heard around the world and it’s not just surf tour operators who are feeling the pinch of this pandemic. Thousands of local communities who rely on tourism dollars to put food on the table are an unfortunate casualty of the travel industry being put on ice. As a company that prides itself on hiring local staff especially in Indonesia and The Maldives we are doing our best to keep them all employed. But categorically speaking, many locals will have no way to put food on the table and that breaks my heart!
It’s not all negative though. Local surfers who grew up sharing their waves with tourists and trying to pick off the left overs are now paddling out to empty lineups, maybe for the first time ever in their lives and taking off on the sets without getting hassled or dropped in on by an entitled tourist with deeper pockets. No hassling, no drop ins, just hooting your mates into perfect waves…how good is that!
However, the local sentiment isn’t entirely positive about a reduction in tourists. Empty Waves also means empty stores, restaurants, bars and of course hotels. You only have to look at the empty streets of Bali to realise the severity of this situation and the lasting effects it will have. Sure the surf is uncrowded, but at what cost?
Another noticeable positive has been the rejuvenation and regeneration of remote, pristine ecosystems that have been relentlessly tried and tested for more than a decade of continual tourism growth. As surfers, we are all fairly, environmentally conscious and each of us do our bit to help. But is it time we do more, and is this the reset we needed to reduce the human impact we are having all in the name of scoring dream waves?
Reports of empty waves in areas we are used to seeing thrive with touring surfers are a stark reality of what’s going on. Around the end of March the Indonesian government would announce that all ports and tourist attractions would be closed indefinitely. This would lead to all “surf” operations being closed in the islands. Cut off from crossing from the mainland ports of Padang. With surfing completely banned and any remaining tourists left to fend for themselves. Some of which are still stranded.
Guy Morgan from Mentawai Surf Co, runs a successful charter and is building his family home overlooking HT’s in the Mentawais. Guy explained in a recent interview that “things have been weird out here at the moment. Staring out at perfect waves all day and not being able to surf them is horrible”. Guy was also concerned about the impact this will have on local-based operations who have been spending the entire off-season making improvements, spending money and now have no income for the foreseeable future.
A similar scenario is playing out in The Maldives with the last remaining surfers mostly made up of locals and ex-pats who are sticking out their work visas while the waves remain this empty. Local Maldivian surf pioneer, Ahmed Nasru (Mickey) a 5th generation Male local compares the current scenario to the pre-tourism boom when he grew up surfing waves like Sultans, Cokes and Chickens with only a handful of local surfers and the odd charter boat here and there. “I haven’t seen the waves this empty since I was a teenager. As we speak, I’m watching empty sets roll through one after the other at a popular left-hander South of the Male International airport. There’s 5 guys in the lineup and its perfect 5-6ft and glassy as”!
We have also been witness to firing empty waves off Hudhuranfushi Resort, also located in the fabled Male Atolls. Lohis, where Richard Kotch and his team base themselves from late Feb to early Nov have seen the first waves of the season go largely unridden due to the lack of tourists. “We are seeing the first swells of the season rolling through, but no guests to enjoy the waves with. April has seen consistently perfect conditions and would usually mean my staff and I are very busy”.
Slightly closer to home, manager of Salani Surf Resort, Jesse Periera, said “This summer season has been amazing leading up to Covid-19 shutting everything down. I’ve spent countless days out front surfing amazing waves. Salani right has been ultra-consistent and the left has seen some amazing sessions also. Best of all, there hasn’t been another soul in the water and it probably won’t be like this ever again, so we have been making the most of it.”
A combination of people in isolation, postponed trips and so long as these empty wave reports continue to flood in, people will be keener than ever to jet off and surf perfect waves when some certainty and confidence is given back to the public, not to mention when travel bans are lifted. However, it does make you wonder what everyone will do until that day comes.
Don’t be surprised to see wavepools really step up and take an increasingly bigger role in satisfying peoples needs for waves. We will always roll with 100% natural and premium experiences, but talk to anyone who has surfed in a wavepool and you’ll know perfect, punchy waves on tap are hard to beat – especially when alternatives aren’t available. URBNSURF in Melbourne had a busy Summer, having around 65,000 surfers through their doors in just the first 12 weeks. And despite having to temporarily close in late March due to Coronavirus, URBNSURF are confident demand will return almost immediately. If anything, we will see an increase in demand when they re-open.
As more people look to scratch their itch, but don’t feel comfortable with navigating airports and long flights, wavepools closer to home become a very realistic option for a lot of people. Damon Tudor, URBNSURF CEO said:
“We’re excited to re-open URBNSURF Melbourne and have waves pumping again in Tullamarine. We expect this to be sometime in early June, subject to advice from the relevant authorities, and we’ll be taking all the necessary steps to provide a safe environment for our guests. The park is spread over several hectares, and we limit surfer numbers in the lagoon, so it’ll be easy for everyone to practice social distancing. We’ve been working hard during the shutdown to refine the experience – our lagoon-side hot tubs are ready, our new Expert and Cruiser Sessions will be available, and the fitout of Three Blue Ducks Melbourne is almost complete. Our regulars have been chomping at the bit to get their fix, and we expect to have strong demand from Victorian and interstate surfers who see us as the ultimate (and affordable) destination for a surf trip or strike mission.”
If overseas travel restrictions do remain in place for a while and wavepools become more and more part of the norm, then Australian surfers will be encouraged to sample more of what’s in their backyard in 2020.
If borders do start to open internationally, the obvious choices will be the Pacific Islands. A prospect Shane Peel, CEO of Indies Trader is excited about. “Surfers will come charging out of the gates the second they can, you guys all know that, you surf. The younger guys will be first and the thought of no crowds and pumping waves will be the driver of surf tourisms return at a broader level. We as a tribe have been through this sort of situation heaps of times … SARS, Tsunami’s, volcano’s etc. Our enquiry is actually pretty active and we are locking people into all our offerings especially the Pacific ones that kick off later in the year. The world can’t stop, it can only pause to take a deep breath and the exhalation after that will be spectacular”.
But is a spectacular return to travel a good thing? It does beg the question about delaying the inevitable and overcrowding again. Can it be managed, can it be avoided all together, how can we help??? “A reduction in surf camps and boats popping up all over the place would be a good start. Overcrowding is an interesting thing. It sorts itself out, but it still shits me. You only have to look at Snapper Rocks or Noosa on a good day. Millions of surfers around the world can’t believe the crazy crowds, but hundreds of people brave the crowd for their (however slim) shot at a crazy wave. The truth is that every person who has ever profited from surfing, taught someone to surf or boasted they’re a surfer to a punter on the street is directly responsible in some way for crowding. I’ve taught my kids to surf, I tell people how amazing it is, and I book trips every year, so I’ve played a role in overcrowding myself. It’s impossible to fix unless you implement surf management plans throughout the globe. I think the only realistic solution in reducing crowds is a lack of funds. That’s why they call it the good old days isn’t it?” – Troy Smith
There is no denying the Pacific Nations will see a surf tourism boom post Corona Virus. For years, empty lineups have remained controlled by intelligent and well thought out programs like that of the SAPNG (Surf Association of Papua New Guinea) designed to keep the waves uncrowded and giving back to local communities/custodians who own the land.
You would be hard pressed to see this kind of plan implemented somewhere established like the Mentawais or Lakey Peak, but maybe the solution is that surfers just learn to share a little bit or ‘expect’ to see crowded lineups. Anything less is a bonus!
One thing is certain, waves around the world will remain empty for quite some time, but for how long? It’s got me wondering what it will be like to visit places like Uluwatu or the Mentawais again. So many mini-marts, bars, warungs, hotels and even the scooter hire guys will all be there needing our help. But we should remain humble about the situation. Indonesian people in particular are very resilient and have been tested for years with little to no help from governments. They will bounce back from this like they always do.
The best feeling above all else, will be paddling out for your first surf since the virus struck. Will it feel like going there for the first time again, or will it be like slotting straight back into the norm. Whatever it is, it will be a bloody great day!