Science says surfers are good for economic growth

Yallingup, Western Australia. Michel Porro/Getty Images

Those nomadic surfers looking for the next big surf break can also be leading indicators of economic growth as well as lifestyle icons.

The discovery of high quality surf breaks by the surfing community boosts economic growth in nearby areas, according to a study of 5000 surf breaks round the world by the University of Sydney.

The researchers analysed satellite images of lights at night as a proxy for economic growth. They found that the discovery of a high-quality break can raise growth by 2.2 percentage points a year.

Nine of the top 10 fastest growing breaks in Australia are in the Margaret River/Yallingup region of Western Australia. Three of the top 10 fastest growing breaks globally are in that state.

The study in 146 countries spans data between 1992 and 2013, with a concentration toward breaks in Australia and the US.

“We conducted four sets of experiments, and they all confirm that good waves significantly increase growth, particularly after recent discoveries and during El Niño years,” says Dr Sam Wills, of the University of Sydney’s School of Economics.

Top 10 fastest growing surf break areas from 1992-2013:

Source: University of Sydney

While it’s well understood that natural features such as rivers and fertile soil matter for economic growth, this study provides some of the first evidence that natural amenities are also important.

The researchers found that economies shrink when surf breaks are removed.

A break at Jardim do Mar, Portugal, was removed though the construction of a coastal road, while another at Mundaka, Spain, disappeared after a river mouth was dredged.

“Discovering a high-quality break — or battery-heated wetsuits that made cold-water breaks more accessible — increased growth in the surrounding areas,” says Dr Wills, a surfing enthusiast.

“But destroying a break reduced growth, even if it was replaced by a new road or a dredged river.”

Dr Wills will present his findings at the International Surfing Symposium conference at the Gold Coast this week, in the lead-up to the Quicksilver Pro, the first stop on the 2017 surfing World Championship Tour.

“I had the idea for the paper straight after I submitted my PhD thesis,” he says.

“It was November and I needed to get out of Oxford, so I looked for somewhere warm and sunny with good waves. I settled on Taghazout in Morocco, thinking it would be quiet. Flying in at sunset over the desert I noticed that everything was dark, except for one little spot that was lit up like Pitt Street: Taghazout.

“Once I arrived I realised that this previously sleepy little fishing village had been overrun by surfers, and so I wanted to figure out whether it was systematically happening around the world.”

Dr Wills has called his conference paper, Surfing a Wave of Economic Growth.