It sounds like something from a post World War II cargo cult: Three decades ago, an Australian pilot leaves a surfboard in a remote village in Papua New Guinea called Vanimo. The village, which lacks rudimentary facilities like electricity or running water, becomes surf crazy. Twenty years on, surfing is not only a pillar of village life but also a means to prestige. With no access to economic or educational advancement, village life is hermetic. A spot on the Papua New Guinea national surfing team is the way to see the wider world; the only way.
While some exotic surf zones around the world are starting to struggle to manage crowds, tempers and expectations, Papua New Guinea has a ‘Surf Management Plan’ that appears to be working really well. How it’s possible for Surf Tourism to be sustainable, and how everyone can benefit if we all do the right thing.
The successful controlled development of Papua New Guinea tourism and benefits afforded to locals through the Surf Association Abel Reverse spiral management scheme created over the last 22 years has resulted in a unique and unprecedented approach to the creation of an equitable and sustainable surf tourism model that can be applied to other niche tourism sectors around the globe.
To help achieve all of this the newly formed Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea Inc (SAPNG), with Andy (Andrew C. Abel) as it’s President and Founder, initiated a club structure and a Surf Management Plan so that each surf spot or village with a population of surfers had its own surf club. The people own 97% of the land in Papua New Guinea, including the fringing reefs, so the traditional customary clans are able to control access and usage of their custodial lands. The surf club acts as a representative of the local village or clan as local resource custodians of the surf spot, allowing them to negotiate on, plan and manage surf tourism on their coast in a sustainable manner.
PNG has unlimited surfing potential from October to April during monsoon seasons and thousands of miles of coastline just waiting to be explored- not to mention breath taking scenery and pristine atolls. Located just south of the equator and 100 miles to the north of Australia. PNG enjoys warm warm waters and consistent waves, complemented by the rich and diverse traditional culture time of it’s people in it’s premier surf destinations of Vanimo, Wewak, Madang and New Ireland provinces.
For most, Papua New Guinea is not a well-known destination for surfing, however people have been surfing here for hundreds of years. New Ireland has become known to travelling surfers only over the last 15 years, with the opening of Nusa Island Retreat who were the first to promote surfing and cater for travelling surfers in and around the Kavieng area.
While many international surf destinations rapidly pass through stages of initial discovery and early years of limited exposure and exploitation; all too often the once pristine surf destination quickly becomes over exposed, over exploited and over crowded. The magic is lost as the resort operators & tour operators quickly take control, resulting in overcrowding and over development with the primary goal becoming profit generation for the operators.
Fortunately, PNG has had the foresight to observe and identify the many shortcomings of over-commercialisation of surf resources in various other mainstream locations. The Association, its Clubs, Resource Communities and ultimately the commercial tour and service operators have necessarily aligned and agreed to the establishment of Surf Management Plans in order to promote sustainable growth of surf tourism in line with agreed expectations and benefits at each level of the PNG Surf movement.
Working together, the SAPNG in conjunction with the surf industry, tourism operators and traditional reef custodians have developed a unique and defining feature that crystallizes a truly memorable PNG surfing experience – Surf Management Plans (SMP). The vast majority of PNG’s land ownership is under traditional customary clans. For coastal communities, this extends to traditional and custodial rights to fringing reefs. SMP’s are essentially access agreements which enlist sustainable quota limits in exchange for fees and levies. Charging each visiting surfer a fee (around AUD$50 to SAPNG through its registered wholesalers and then AUD$12 per day per surfer) which is paid out end of the surf season in the host surf club and the local community to fund projects that address and improve issues such as water sanitation or the improvement of educational facilities.
Andy Abel could have done what many surfers might have done and kept the waves of Papua New Guinea a secret; he probably would have enjoyed perfect, tropical, uncrowded waves for the past twenty eight years. Instead, he considered a future that might involve the “discovery” of the waves in PNG and their subsequent unchecked surf-colonisation, and he chose to use the opportunity to influence the development of surfing in his homeland for the good of his fellow countrymen. There are no doubt local communities at a few “idyllic” surf locales around the world that can’t help but wonder how their home might have ended up if they’d had someone like Andy Abel fighting their corner.
The PNG experience is totally unique in world surfing. The SMP is designed to keep it that way.
The development of surfing in PNG is the subject of a brilliant documentary film by Adam Pesce titled “Splinters”