These days it seems like everyone is running some kind of surf operation—whether it be a surf camp, surf tour, surf school, surf hostel, live-aboard boat charter, or some combination of these. While the surf travel industry has felt the impact of the global financial crisis as much as (if not more than) any other, this is still a great way to maximize surf time while making a decent income. However, before you mortgage your house and start building your dream resort, here are a few things to consider:
1) Wave Type: So you have found the perfect wave—but perfect for whom? Barrel riders? Longboarders? High performance rippers? Big wave hellmen? The waves you have on offer will dictate not only what type of clientele you will host (and by extension what type of facilities you will need to provide), but also how and where you will advertise.
2) Wave Consistency: Just because a wave is perfect a few days per year doesn’t mean it is a perfect wave. If people are going to shell out a few thousand dollars for a surf trip, they’ll want to be surfing good waves. Sure, no destination is 100% consistent—but when a client pays a deposit six months in advance, it is important to know that there is at least a good chance that he will score. Before breaking ground on your resort, consider how often your marquee wave breaks, and if there are any other spots nearby that can keep your clients in the water should the conditions not cooperate.
3) Competition: It’s the oldest story in the book—an intrepid explorer finds the perfect setup, decides to share his discovery with the world, builds a surf camp and begins to advertise…and then a dozen copycats come in and crowd the region with their own camps and tour operations. Surf travel can be a big money business, so don’t think that dozens of investors aren’t going to take notice as soon as you pioneer a new region. There is a fine line between drumming up business and inviting competitors into the region, and walking that line may be the most difficult part of surf tourism.
4) Accessibility: The reality is that there are dozens and perhaps hundreds of world class waves out there right now with no one surfing them, just begging to become the next Tavarua or Kandui or G-Land. But unless your clients can get to your waves easily (i.e., relatively cheaply, and without subjecting themselves to multiple days of uncomfortable travel), your chances of maintaining full occupancy are pretty low.
5) Local Issues: Ask any surf tour operator the biggest source of his stress and frustration and you’ll hear about land disputes, government bureaucracy and problems with the local employees. Operating a business in a foreign country can be a nightmare, so make sure you have all of your bases covered before investing any money.
6) Alternative Activities: Eventually, the worst-case scenario will become a reality and a group of your clients will get skunked. If they spend their trip sitting in their rooms thinking about how crap the surf is, they will undoubtedly go home unhappy. But if you can keep them busy with alternative activities such as snorkeling, waterfalls, hikes, and cultural events, they might just fall in love with the region—and come back for a second try at swell. Repeat customers are surf camp owners’ best friends.
7) Wave Count: Ultimately, the most important question you have to ask yourself before starting a surf tour operation is whether or not your new home will still be paradise with 20 other surfers in the lineup. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you discover epic surf is to keep your mouth shut and enjoy the solitude while it lasts. Sure, owning a surf camp means getting paid to surf—but there is no substitute for empty barrels, so make sure this is what you want to do before actually doing it! Once the cat is out of the bag, there is no going back.