Tourism’s New Wave

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

David Aabo is en route from Peru to New York City after having spent much of the last few years in the South American country investigating opportunities for development that might help local entrepreneurs build a sustainable regional economy.

Like many dedicated surfers, Aabo views the world through the prism of a surfboard stoked on visions of exotic destinations and epic waves. So single-minded, this breed has sometimes derisively been dubbed “surf colonialists” — following an all too familiar pattern of discovering a wave, declaring ownership and moving on, bringing waves of tourists behind them.

During his own travels as a U.S. Peace Corps worker, Aabo observed surfers passing through the fishing town of Lobitos in northern Peru without contributing much to the local economy other than to stop for gas and perhaps buy lunch. Aabo had an epiphany: Why not create a surf camp for surfers with a conscience?

He believes he can recruit them to improve living conditions in the hardscrabble town 17 hours driving distance from the capital city of Lima.

Surfers are often jaded by more conventional modes of travel and too restless remain idle for very long. “I think surfers will get involved for a variety of reasons. They’ve already been on that trip where they sit by the pool and sip margaritas,” he says.

Along with co-founders Daniela Amico and Jim Clark, Aabo launched Waves for Development, a non-profit organisation designed to combine the best elements of surf travel with volunteer service.

In February, Waves for Development launched the first of what they hope to be many surf and volunteer service opportunities for the global traveler — a pilot programme that brought together 38 local Lobitos youth and 12 international volunteers to “build personal and social skills and learn the value of environmental conservation while sharing the surf experience”.

Even providing a service as basic as swimming lessons can make a huge difference in the lives of Lobitos residents. The ocean has been off-limits to generations of local fisherman wary of the hazards the Pacific Ocean presents. But this is an ideal teaching opportunity for surfers accustomed to reading the water for hidden dangers.

Their goal is to teach English to students and to produce a generation of Peruvian surfers capable of looking out for themselves both inside and outside of the water. And, in the future, enabling local residents to better control the destiny of their town.

Despite the lack of infrastructure, and frequent power outages, surfers keep coming to Lobitos lured by the promise of riding world-class waves. “It’s a rough place to live,” says Aabo.

He’s hoping to tap into their enthusiasm to promote the town’s renewable natural resource — waves, and lots of them. The fishing village is part of Peru’s 2,000-kilometre coastline, where pristine beaches remain unclaimed and often empty.

Aabo believes that it in order for the programme to work there has to be an element of reciprocity. “We don’t want to be paternalistic. You have to give in order to gain. You give some of your time and give your energy and you gain the use of a surfboard,” he says.

This isn’t charity work per se so much as an opportunity to participate in Peru’s bustling tourism economy. In recent years, tour operators have made concerted efforts to promote Peru’s rich biological diversity and cultural legacy of empire and conquest to adventure travelers.

In doing so, Waves for Development is part of a trend towards “voluntourism” that combines travel and volunteering at the destination visited. The phenomenon has become increasingly popular, especially among Gen Y college students and Baby Boomers as they near retirement age. More and more people are dedicating at least part of their vacations to environmental restoration projects or making much-need repairs to ramshackle houses.

Call it the Al Gore Factor, the [Hurricane] Katrina Effect, or the impulse to have an authentic experience not listed in brochure catalogues, it’s an aspect of travel that’s being seriously addressed at universities and extension programmes such as the Centre for Global Volunteer Service at UC San Diego.

According to a UCSD study, 40 percent of U.S. citizens say they’re willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, with another 13 percent desiring to spend an entire year.

UCSD’s study indicated people want to reclaim their travel experience, connect with other people, and not seal themselves off in a bubble of luxury. More than 84 percent stated that helping school children, families and people in poverty were their top interest.

“People are interested at all life stages, there quite a bit of interest from early on to retirement age,” says Bob Benson, director for the Centre for Global Volunteer Service.

Voluntourism isn’t for everyone. Problems can arise when vacationers’ expectations clash with reality. For example, living as the locals do, even for a brief period of time, might involve eating rice and beans three times a day, no flush toilets, or preparing meals that would send an animal rights activist reeling.

However, voluntourism is catching on among high-minded and well-meaning travelers. Word over the wireless coconut is that Waves for Development has the potential to become a highly sought-after programme that the surf community would be wise to invest their time and effort into.

Feedback has been very positive thus far. Global Surf Industries, a major board distributor, has donated 400 surfboards to the Peruvian project. Meanwhile, Aabo and his colleagues are fielding calls from far-flung corners of the surf world inquiring about volunteer opportunities and thinking about establishing surf camps elsewhere in Latin America and Asia.

The impulse is simple: “To surf and do good,” says Aabo.

Source: Interpress News Service (link opens in a new window)