The Ethics of Surf Tourism

Are the foreign dollars surf travel brings to tiny fishing villages propping up local economies or pricing indigenous people out of the market?

Jose Eduardo is happy. This is by his own confession. But just one look at his smile would have told you that. That smile stole my heart as we began chatting in the shore break at Santana Beach outside Tolas, Nicaragua while engaging in some surf travel.

At 14 years old Jose is the sole breadwinner in his family. He provides for his three younger siblings, two of which are mentally handicapped. He also inadvertantly provides for his 84-year-old father’s drinking problem. His is mother, who is also mentally handicapped, fled for her life eight years ago. Rumor has it the drunken father was chasing the family around with a machete, which was his regular habit.

Inequality surf tourism
Jose and I on the day we wet met at Santana beach

Living on fish scraps

Jose and I were taking a break from surfing. He was body surfing, waiting for the fishermen to come in. He waited there each day in order to help them draw the boat up onto the sand in exchange for a few scrap from the daily catch. Eager to practise my Spanish we got to chatting. Jose didn’t come right out and tell me his story. He wasn’t looking for a hand out. In fact, when I asked him where was his surfboard he told me it was broken. I would later find out that wasn’t the truth. He had indeed been given a board by a local surf camp but his dad sold it that same night to pay for alcohol. People in the village had tried to give Jose work before, but the money always got converted to alcohol before Jose had a chance to buy food.

I asked Jose how he and his sibling are able to eat. He said sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

Surfing in fishing villages
Jose waits at the beach everyday for the fishermen to return. He helps push the boat to shore in exchange for scraps from the day’s catch. This is how the 14-year old feeds his family.

Broken hearted and hopeless

I left Jose with my snapback hat and a five dollar bill. He left me with tears in my eyes and a broken heart. As I walked up the beach back to my botique hotel-resort I couldn’t help but notice the discrepancy in the housing. Right next door to mansions stood homes made of sticks and trash. I returned to my room, turned on the AC, plugged in my iPhone and took out my laptop to work. A troubling thought struck me: Am I the bad guy in this story? How can a system that doesn’t work for him ever work for me?

inequality in Surf travel
A system that leaves some people living in stick houses right next door to others living in mansions leaves me with some troubling questions.

When expats invade

This dichotomy of the ultra poor and the rich expats haunted me throughout my stay. I met a middle aged couple from Jersey who had come down to their vacation home on the beach for two weeks. I met an mid 50’s Italian man who had taken up residence just up the beach from my hotel. He told me he had already made enough money to live several lifetimes. I met a young European woman who owned a beachfront home that she operated as a hostel. Another even younger woman from South Africa sold handmade jewelry to pay for the land she owned. A man from South Carolina who had lived there for 14 years laughed at me when I asked him how to say something in Spanish. He said his Spanish was awful. A guy from Florida was quick to show off his “local knowledge” of his “home break.”

Local jobs not going to locals

Even the surf instructors, some surf guides and surf photographers were not locals. Infact, I didn’t meet one business owner or homeowner who was born in Nicaragua. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It was just my experience. Actually, the only local people I met were the people who served me something. 

I am the villain in this story

Let me put a disclaimer here. I am a white person. My visit is just 10 days. I know nothing about the local culture. Many of the expats I spoke with did contributed to the local community is some significant way. Their very presence, as well as mine, offers jobs to the local people. 

A war torn nation

Nicaragua is a country in crisis. The village around me looked like a ghost town. Political demonstrations broke out over a year ago in protest of the corrupt government. The demonstrations quickly turned violent with the reigning powers using snipers and even crop dusters to take out anyone who dared to speak against them.  Tourism had tanked and the local economy was feeling it. 

I met a blond haired, blue eyed surfer from New York at a sand bottomed, open aired bar, overlooking the surf break Popoyo. He told me his passport, credit cards and all his cash had been stolen by the housekeeper at his hotel. He said he’d been coming to the same hotel for years and never had a problem. Were the locals resorting to anything they had to in order to get by in such tough times?

Creating jobs or keeping the locals stuck?

I’m still in Nicaragua as I type this, reclining on the biggest bed I’ve ever seen. The bed was freshly made for me this morning by a smiling brown face while I waited by the pool, sipping a peanut butter cacao smoothie, which had also been handed to me by a smiling brown face. The server handed it to me and said, in perfect english, “Here is your smoothie Melanie. I hope you like it!” I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember her name.

pool at malibu popoyo nicaragua
Sipping a smoothie by the pool I have to wonder, am I a part of the problem?

Is my presence here part of the solution or the problem? I’m still trying to work that out. Do the tourist bring jobs and a higher standard of living or just make it harder for a subsistence economy to thrive – an economy that was been working for thousands of years before white people ever showed up? Certainly tourism creates jobs. But the bottom line is that something isn’t right here.

This NY Times piece on a Nicaraguan skateboarder starting the first skateshop in Nicaragua gives a more positive take take on tourism.

Give a man a $5 and he’ll eat for a day…

The five dollars I gave to Jose Eduardo might make his day easier but it doesn’t make his life easier. Today I’ll go around the hotel and give tips to all the employees before I leave in the morning. But is it enough? Do they get paid enough to buy land that they can pass down to their children or start a business of their own? Or have the expats made those dreams unattainable for day laborers even after they receive their tips?

Why doesn’t the local government help?

And what about the the people who work for social services who have been called multiple times in attempt to remove Jose and his siblibling from their father. Apparently they’ve done nothing to help. Maybe it’s because they have incredibly difficult jobs and get paid pennies. Maybe they could get paid more making smoothies for tourists. I honestly don’t know. I’m just asking questions. 

When I consider Jose’s dad, I also have to have compassion. Imagine having four children, two with mental handicaps, and knowing that the only future you can give them is sticks and mud. You almost can’t fault the guy for drinking his life away. It doesn’t make it right by any means, but you see what I’m saying.

Jose Eduardo is happy, but…

Jose Eduardo is 14, and he is happy, now. But will he say the same when he is 24 or 84 and still doing menial work for those who are more fortunate than him? These questions will haunt me almost as much as Jose’s smile and the thought of those four little children going to bed hungry in the dirt tonight.

Inequality in Central America
Jose Eduardo is Happy. Now. But will he say the same thing when lack of opportunity has kept him hungry for another 14 or 40 years?

Questions to ask

Should we quit going on surf trips to fishing villages where the people have subsisted for hundreds of years? Or should fortunate people stop buying properties in less fortunate areas? Maybe social programs should be built? Should we invest more heavily in these areas? I have no answers, only questions. This whole issue seemed to be a huge elephant in the room and no one around me was talking about it. Can we at least have this conversation?


If you’ve had a similar experience or have thoughts to share on the topic we’d love to hear about it in the comments.


I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here


  1. Melanie! So inspired by your article! I have been to 14 Countries in just 4 yrs of learning to surf. While I do a homeless outreach in Venice, I feel I could do so much more when I go to other countries. Looks like you were at Malibu Popoyo too! While I was there and the surf turned bad I reached out to a couple now living there, making a HUGE impact in the community.
    I got to go feed children meals before and after school at a church. I was also blessed to go visit one of their local lady friends who got a house paid for to her from their friends. They are farming and donating as well as helping a girl with CP. The moral of the story is we can help with a little research of where we are going or just a beach clean up. I have also learned from asking the same questions you do that we have taught many local recycling etc. Thank God because that’s another huge issue I have is the trash we are causing and the impact it has on their environment and the ocean. Most important pushing locals out. I try not to use Airbnb unless it is a true local and not an expat or investor. When I was their I bought only local merchandise down to my coffee. It does make a difference. It’s really the housing that I feel needs to be stopped. Locals can not afford homes in Hanalei and there is so much work because there is not enough housing and people have to leave or can not afford to live. Thank you for bringing awareness and that is a HUGE help! Going to follow you for sure!

    • Jen, This is such good news. I am so happy to hear you are out there actively searching for ways to address the problems. You bring up some ideas I had not thought of and indeed make me feel a bit ashamed for not having tried harder to search for solutions myself. This is exactly the kind of awareness I was needing and the reason I wrote the post. Thank you for joining the conversation!

  2. 2 days and 2 of your posts later I am officially a fan, M. As much as I share your stoke for adventure I also question the impacts of this thirst on the natural and human world around me. Thanks for posing the questions, as they must always precede the answers.

    • You make my heart happy! Thanks! It’s an interesting world. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with these questions. I’m in the middle of writing a piece on another girl I met on the same trip. But this one works with locals to get them education and English classes! there is hope!


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