Friday, August 21, 2009

Behind Surf Tourism

Now and then Robertsport Community Works is approached by international journalists who seek a better understanding of our mission and our projects. In a recent interchange with a journalist who has considerable experience with surf publications and sub-Saharan travel, we were asked a question that gets to the heart of surf tourism:

"How much are you interested in increasing surf tourism in the area, and how much are you interested in just seeing to it that whatever comes is positive, clean and beneficial to the locals?"

Waves can only handle a certain number of surfers before they get crowded and become an unrelaxing hassle. All of the expatriate locals in Liberia enjoy waves that are shockingly uncrowded; they can be hesitant to embrace programs that provide Liberians with more surfboards or initiatives that attract more foreign surfers.

This journalist's question probably splits surf communities apart more often than it knits them together. My original thinking was definitely protectionist. I wanted to "see to it that whatever comes is positive, clean and beneficial to the locals" and I looked forward to enjoying the uncrowded waves with a few good friends. But against my own better interests as a surfer, we're focusing more and more on "increasing surf tourism in the area."

Why work to clutter up something that sometimes feels special because it is so isolated? The answer can be found in a raft of analytical documents about Liberia's current vulnerability. Youth unemployment is estimated at around 50% (at the absolute lowest) and opportunities for education and employment border on non-existent. This is the most destabilizing fact about this country--and it is a fact that is making many investors (private and governmental) too worried to inject real cash into the Liberian economy. Tourism can add to the nation's stability by providing lots of low-skill jobs and by providing a clear incentive to control violence and the country's public image.

I'd rather see more surfers in the water if it brings more jobs and if they help to jump start the tourism industry of Liberia. Sitting at the inaugural meetings of the Tourism Association of Liberia--to which Robertsport Community Works is offering support--makes it clear how much work must go into rebranding a country that is still widely associated with terrible things. Surfers are often some of the most adventurous travelers, some of the people who are most willing to give image-challenged nations a second chance--and then to brag about it to everyone they know.

Liberia doesn't need a closely guarded secret; Liberia needs help.

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