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What exactly is ‘sustainable surf tourism’? To Dr. Jess Ponting, Director of the Center of Surf Research at San Diego State, who did extensive research in the Mentawais and Papua New Guinea it is: “(i) a move away from Western business models; (ii) formal, long-term, coordinated planning; and, (iii) systematic attempts to foster cross-cultural understanding.” In Costa Rica they offer a Certificate for Sustainable Tourism for having these qualities in a business. A more succinct definition is: Tourism with effective operations that promote savings and efficient use of natural resources in the country, and that commits to the community and its needs, searching for an environmental solution. 

Tara Ruttenberg from Tarantula Surf would add that “sustainable surf tourism lets us live the illusion that we’re contributing toward a sustainability we’re comfortable with in our world view and lifestyle practices, while actually deepening oppression and sustaining social injustice on a global scale, preventing truly sustainable futures from happening in the places we love to travel to surf.” So I would hesitate to include practices that typify a neo-colonial approach to ‘saving’ the beach communities. 

To me it is a business that is giving back to their communities by volunteering time and resources, helping the environment through their daily practices of reducing plastic use and energy consumption, and providing their employees opportunities for personal growth. 

Dominical Surf School

I met Debbie Zec, the owner of Dominical Surf School, when she was 9 years old. She would help me with beach cleanups and work with her mother to protect sea turtle nests. On many weekends she would be in the recycling center, helping separate glass bottles by color and crushing aluminum cans. And for community service her school would plant baby mangrove trees to replenish the ecosystem on the south side of the Baru River.

Debbie Zec - owner of Dominical Surf School

When she started her own company, she gave back to the community by co-creating Chicas con Proposito, a girls only group that teaches them how to surf and be competent in the water. (Her friend Jeannine Haddad from Dominical Waverider also is a co-creator) These girls come from broken homes and are often lacking resources and support so every month they get a chance to be around other girls and adult women role models who teach them confidence and give them a happy break from a difficult life at home.

Debbie still stays active in Dominical’s recycling program and has recently organized a safety program to help reduce crime in town and the neighboring beaches. With her help, there is a WhatsApp group that gives assistance when there is a potential crime in progress and allows community members to share ideas, helping to keep the community safer.  

Bodhi Surf Yoga Team - photo: Bodhi Surf Yoga

Bodhi Surf & Yoga

Travis Bays had a mission when he started Bodhi Surf & Yoga and that was to be a leader in sustainable surf tourism. It starts with his company’s achievement as a Benefit Corporation, a designation obtained only through a rigorous examination of how they work with the local community, their environmental efforts, and how they use local resources. 

Surf community in Uvita - photo: Bodhi Surf Yoga

Bodhi Surf also gives away a free week at their camp each year as part of their Ocean Guardian Contest, where the winner selected is doing the most to help reduce plastic consumption. The contest is a way to promote ideas from around the world on how citizens find alternatives to plastic and solutions to pollution problems on the their local beaches.

Their biggest project to date is the Bahía Ballena Plastic Free Initiative, which brings together the entire region to reduce the consumption of single use plastics and has the support of many local shops and restaurants. To learn more about their efforts read our interview with Travis from 2017.

Tim Marsh - owner of Safari Surf School - photo: Safari Surf School

Safari Surf School

Tim Marsh, the owner of Safari Surf School wanted to make his business as environmentally friendly as possible. So when he built Hotel Ola Verde to host his guests, he designed it to be the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified accommodation in the country. “We have an immense passion for surfing and as surfers we have a deep connection with the environment in which we work and play in. It is our responsibility as surfers and human beings to protect this amazing gift so our future generations can enjoy it as we do today.”

Beach cleanup - photo: Safari Surf School

The five-building site centers on a passive solar design, using shading, predominant wind patterns, and natural ventilation systems to naturally cool and light the buildings while minimizing their energy needs. Olas Verdes also features rooftop solar panels, solar hot water, and a battery storage system, handling roughly 30 percent of the hotel’s energy load, thanks to a variety of energy-saving measures: energy-efficient appliances, CFL and LED lighting, timers, and motion sensors. They also have added an underground rainwater storage system that captures up to 14,000 liters. Graywater is treated with bacteria instead of chemicals and then recycled to irrigate the property. 

Besides the construction, they also hire all of their employees from the local community. They donate to the local schools through their Pack for a Purpose program, asking guests to bring down medical supplies, books, and school supplies for the students. They are a Gold Sponsor for a local project called Costas Verdes, which provides environmental education workshops for kids. Plus they are the first Stoke Certified surf program in the world! Being certified means they were evaluated by a third party based on more than 140 comprehensive sustainability assessment criteria that reflect the challenges and best practices specific to surf resorts.

Their top surf instructor is former Costa Rica Women’s Champion Andrea Diaz. She is a powerhouse in the community, volunteering to teach kids learn to surf through the Surf for Youth program she created to help the less fortunate kids outside of Tamarindo. Plus she leads women’s workshops in Nosara to empower them in and out of the lineup.


These businesses are making a positive difference in their communities and it is my hope that by sharing their stories other surf related businesses will do the same. If you know of other surf related businesses that deserve recognition for their conservation and community efforts, please post them in the comments section below.


Sustainable Surf Tourism: A Community Centered Approach in Papua New Guinea – LINK

What’s Sustainable about Sustainable Surf Tourism? – LINK

Featured photo courtesy of Ballena Tales Magazine

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