Are we loving these islands to death?
Surf tourism in the Mentawais is undergoing a rapid and far-reaching transformation that will change the islands, the lifestyles of the local people and surfers' experiences of the Mentawais forever.
WORDS BY TIM BAKER
With a new airport, numerous land camps and a new Mentawai government keen to cash in on their greatest natural resource, waves, the once remote island chain is quickly morphing into a modern surf holiday enclave before our eyes. One startled visitor recently reported the slightly surreal experience of watching the State of Origin rugby league on a wide screen TV at the new Macaronis resort.
At the center of the changes is a shift from water to land-based surf tourism – with at least five land camps now open for business, several more under construction and even more major land purchases underway. The construction of an airstrip on Sipora, and a new air charter service direct from Singapore means surfers can now fly direct to the islands, eliminating the overnight stay in Padang and/or the overnight crossing by boat from the mainland. Overcrowding of the main breaks is also likely to reach new peaks this season, especially around the camps – at Katiet (Lance’s or HTs), Macaronis, Telescopes, Kandui and Playgrounds.
The struggle to control or influence the development of the surf tourism industry in the Mentawais is a long and sometimes sordid tale. These days, while most surf operators in the islands at least try to get along, it is the Mentawai government and its people who are rightly agitating for change and some reasonable economic benefits from the growth of surf tourism in their islands. New laws drawn up by the Mentawai government (but yet to be enforced) call for a limit on the number of surf tourism operators in the islands, with only five tourism licenses being issued. Each license holder would be allowed a maximum of six boats, with a total carrying capacity of 50 surfers (a total of 30 boats, or 250 surfers at any one time), and is also obliged to develop land-based accommodation. These land-based resorts would then control access and carrying capacity of the waves adjacent to their land. A tax of US$3 per day is to be charged for every surfer on boat or land, and tourists will only be allowed to visit the islands through a licensed operator. With at least five land camps, and perhaps an average of a dozen surfers each, that is likely to push the number of surfers in the islands at one time to more than 300. When there’s swell and those surfers are spread over a dozen or more breaks, the chances of getting a few waves to yourself are still good. When the surf’s small or the winds are wrong, and only a handful of breaks are working, crowds might well be comparable to Bali or G-Land.
While past attempts to regulate and tax the surf tourism industry in the Mentawais have floundered, this is the first time the actions are being instigated by the Mentawai people themselves. Yet, you’ll find as many differing opinions on exactly how this change should be managed as there are perfect waves in this surf-rich island chain.
THE SURFING EXPERT CONSULTANT
French woman Elizabeth Henderson (pictured below) had only been surfing for four years when she took off on a round-the-world surf trip. That journey eventually landed her in the Mentawai Islands, in the unlikely role of “surfing expert consultant” to the newly formed local Mentawai Government.
“They came to me because I was the only one living there that didn’t have a business involved,” says Elizabeth. “They’ve seen me come back and live with them, year after year.”
Elizabeth first went to the Mentawais in 2001 as a cook on a charter boat for the Surf Travel Company. Since then, she has been back every year, working as a cook, a surf guide, a SurfAid volunteer, and living on land with the locals for up to 10 months at a time.
During her last visit, she was teaching English to members of the new local government. “The head of the taxation department came to my house, and said he wants me to be their surfing expert consultant,” Elizabeth says, still sounding a little incredulous. “I got a bit worried – what is that? They want to find a way where they can have tourism but respect the way surfers think about having waves to themselves. I’m there to help.”
It will be a big job, as surfing brings enormous change to the once isolated islands. Prior to the discovery of surf there in the early ‘90s, it was only logging companies, illegal foreign fishermen, the odd yachtie and the occasional anthropologist, naturalist or missionary who visited the islands.
Sitting off the west coast of Sumatra, for years the Mentawais were largely ignored even while they were governed from the mainland. The government in Sumatra or Jakarta regarded the Mentawai natives as primitive and tried to ban their traditional ways, relocated rainforest communities to centralized coastal camps for easier administration, and transplanted thousands of Indonesians from Java and Sumatra to the islands. The result has been the creation of one of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in Indonesia, with shocking health problems, little representation in government and few prospects for improving their situation.
Surfers at least hold the potential to bring some economic benefits to the islands, rather than just simply exploiting them like the loggers and fisherman have done over the years. “They’re starting to see surfing as a way out of poverty,” says Elizabeth. Already, the formation of medical aid agency, SurfAid International, has brought enormous improvement in the health conditions of many local people.
“This place is lucky. It hasn’t been destroyed yet. It’s like it’s been protected,” says Elizabeth. “The earthquake and tsunami hasn’t touched there. SurfAid started there, and that’s been very positive. I think surfers care a bit more, they’re not just dumb tourists. There’s a lot of people who care about this place. It’s a big karma place.”
Elizabeth has been back in Australia during the off-season with her Australian boyfriend, studying politics and journalism to help her prepare for her new role in the Mentawais. “I’ve done a lot of things because of the Mentawais. I’ve become a teacher, I’m in Australia studying. I like the idea of being devil’s advocate.”
But she warns that the newly appointed Mentawai government is excited by the idea of land camps and development. The surf charter industry has yet to bring many economic benefits to the islands, and the government and people are getting impatient. “The whole government goes to Bali and they see that … they want that,” she says.
“They don’t see the future for the boats, they really see the future for the resorts. They’ll give the licenses to the resorts, and it’s up to the resorts if they let the boats come there.”
It is definitely a time of change in the Mentawais. They have only had their own government for four years and local elections will be held for the first time later this year. There is a great deal of effort being put into stopping illegal logging and fishing, and one of the few non-depletive industries available to the Mentawai people is tourism, especially surfing.
THE UPMARKET RESORT
A new up-market resort at Lance’s Right, or HTs, has sent out promotional material, boasting of a five star experience – luxury villas, private plunge pools, king-sized beds, onsite masseuse, international cuisine and, perhaps most significantly, direct air transfers from Singapore to the Mentawais by 12-seater aircraft.
Surfers will be transported from Singapore airport to Katiet village in just three hours and be in the water that same day. This eliminates the overnight crossing by charter boat from Padang, and effectively adds a day’s surfing to your holiday. The so-called “Katiet Villas @ HTs”, operated by Mentawai Resorts, were due to receive their first guests in July.
“Mentawai Resorts is a wholly owned subsidiary of OMI (Onu Mentawai International) and we are the only tourism license holder who is a registered Mentawaian company,” says Steve Kelly, one of the partners in Katiet Villas. “All the other companies are registered in Padang. Our Chief Operating Officer is a well-respected member of one of the largest tribal families in the Mentawais, because of this, we feel we are held in high regard by the Mentawaian people.”
While they are offering a high-end, up-market holiday for visitors, he says their focus is bringing real benefits to the local people. “We are providing the local people (essentially the Katiet villagers), with good economic, environmental and cultural benefits. We are supplying jobs (over 30 local laborers and builders have been employed for the last year alone), job training (hospitality, cooking, cleaning, organic produce farming, site management, etc.) medical facilities, improving local environmental and health levels.”
Mentawai Resorts has also engaged the services of consultant Jess Ponting, who is one of the surfing world’s leading authorities on sustainable tourism. “With Jess, we have set firm goals and objectives to ensure that the area remains pristine and retains its natural beauty, whilst also delivering sustainable economic and social benefit to the local people,” says Steve.
Jess, who is completing a PhD on sustainable tourism, seems impressed by their efforts so far. “They are very responsive and seem genuine about doing the best job possible,” he says.
Consulting with the local community has also been paramount. “We believe one of the key ways to an ongoing happy relationship is to have a two-way communication and consultation with the local people,” says Steve. “We have to date been successful in doing this by consistently choosing to ‘under promise and over deliver’. This is quite different to what the locals have experienced in the past with many western operators.”
He also says they have no plans to claim exclusive use of the wave in front of their resort, Lance’s Right, or HTs. “Mentawai Resorts believe that sensible co-operation is the best approach,” says Steve. “We’d hope that if charter boat and resort operators could at least talk to each other – about where they’re going, how many surfers are already there, what the waves are doing and try to avoid overcrowding the break – then everyone’s experience will be that much more enjoyable.
“It’s not for us to determine if there should be a ceiling on overall numbers in the Mentawais. If it’s anyone’s decision, it’s one for the local government. But we do believe that the local Mentawaian people have, without doubt, been short changed over the last 20 years and their needs and rights have not always been taken into account by the Mentawaian surf industry.”
Rob Wuillemin is one of the non-surfing skippers who copped his fair share of criticism for jumping on the Mentawai bandwagon in the late ‘90s as the surf charter business took off.
The Mentawais were originally the domain of a handful of surfing skippers, in it for the lifestyle at least as much as the money. Rob was perhaps unfairly targeted as a symbol of a new, more business-minded approach to surf charters. Nearly 10 years on, Rob and his wife, and their well-appointed charter boat Sans Souci are still in the Mentawais. He originally came to the islands at the invitation of Rick Cameron, director of Great Breaks International, who had high hopes of master-planning and managing the growth of surf tourism in the Mentawais.
Cameron’s planned Mentawai Sanctuary, with his exclusive control over boat numbers, movements and land developments, proved unpopular and unworkable with rival skippers. But Rob and the Sans Souci have endured. Rob’s outsider status as a non-surfer and association with the widely unpopular Cameron might have sometimes made his position difficult, but Rob still believes Cameron’s Mentawai Sanctuary concept had its merits. “I believed that Rick was on the right track, and with a few small modifications to his ideas, all those involved up there could have really secured their futures with what could have been the best surfing destination in the world,” says Rob. “But, I hadn’t been involved with anyone in the surfing industry, didn’t know the local politics or the surfing community politics and couldn’t get over the huge egos involved from all quarters. To this present day I haven’t got involved in any of the local politics, I just do my business and just shake my head at all those guys involved back in 1997 who could have had something really special.”
The chief issue for the surf charter boats is safety, he says, and imposing reasonable safety standards would be the best way to regulate the number of boats.
“Currently there are around 30 to 35 vessels operating in the Mentawais. There is a small handful of these vessels that I would say comply to Australian standards for surveyed passenger vessels, are run very professionally with western crew and have the required certification to run commercial vessels. They could operate in Australia without a problem,” he says. “There are one third plus that are safe, mostly western vessels that carry life-saving equipment, life rafts, flares, have twoway radios, etc. They probably lack a fair amount of maintenance and in some cases are run by unqualified skippers. Not overly professional. Then there are the rest – mostly local boats – that I would think twice about going up a river on: they’re unsafe, don’t have any life-saving gear and radios/electronics rarely work. I believe that there should be restrictions on numbers of vessels. The vessels should be of a certain standard with emphasis on safety. It is only a matter of time before we lose a boat and some lives. This will rock the industry and will be felt by everyone. Probably around 25 vessels would be a reasonable number.”
His advice to those considering a Mentawai surf trip? “My advice would be to do their homework, select a boat that has the capability to move in any weather, safely and unrestricted by the size of its fuel tanks. You can almost guarantee that half of your time you can have breaks to yourself. Definitely they will see much, much more of the Mentawais and possibly be able to go north to Tanah Bala and Telos if on a decent boat. If you go on a cheap local boat you can expect to surf with four or five boats every day. Local boats tend to stay together for safety and can’t move in rough weather or at night. They are also limited with their fuel range.”
THE SURFING SKIPPER
Jody Perry has spent as much time skippering surf charter boats as almost anyone. Yet this year he’s left the Mentawais disillusioned and in search of new seas. Jody’s one of those surfing skippers in it for the lifestyle, a former junior champion who competed with the likes of Tom Carroll, Joel Engel and Thornton Fallander back in the late ‘70s. When he talks of his experience in the Mentawais, he seems to echo a sentiment felt by many long-time surfers about the evolution of surfing itself.
“I have watched the surfing world as a whole evolve over more than 30 years, and the same process seems to occur,” says Jody. “We start with something magical and endearing and heartfelt. Everyone wants to be a part of it. Once involved, people realize that financial rewards can be achieved. The more ruthless go too far in that pursuit. Firstly, commercial interests enter the picture. Secondly, exploitation enters the commercial interest. The ‘greed factor’ emerges and grows, and with its own self-sustaining momentum it goes too far until all original sensibilities are eroded. All semblance of the original ideal is abandoned, and the enchantment of the whole experience is compromised for everyone. Good people leave disillusioned. Lesser individuals take over the reigns and run the show even further into the ground.”
Jody is one of a group of surfing skippers who seemed able to work cooperatively to manage crowds in the Mentawais and try and encourage decent surf etiquette in the water, but he feels they have been fighting a losing battle. “Myself and others tried hard to tune our guys to share over the years, and to keep the Mentawais surfing experience as civil and enchanting as we could, for as long as we could. We took responsibility for our guests’ behavior in the water, threatening free-surfers and pros alike that they would be pulled out of the water and steamed away if they didn’t play well with others. It worked to a point. It works if everyone complies, but others didn’t. It only takes one person to fuck that up. In the end, across the board, it proved too much to ask. Open sharing currently works between a small percentage of boat captains who are working with each other. But that’s hardly a majority.”
He is also vehemently opposed to the concept of exclusivity being granted to any waves in the Mentawais, arguing that the legal precedent for wave rights simply doesn’t exist in Indonesia. “In arguing for exclusive access, operators have cited Tavarua and similar [resorts] as examples. It should be understood that in various islands in the Pacific, local tribes have absolute control and dominion over their local reefs and waterways. That is not the case in Indonesia. All surf breaks being ocean-side of the high tide mark are therefore under Maritime jurisdiction. Surfing is a ‘marine’ activity. Land-based local authorities have no jurisdiction even under the limited ‘independence’ status that the local Mentawai Islands Council has. That access, that jurisdiction, has never been granted.
Charter boat access (including passenger access), operating permits and clearances are granted to charter boats to operate in ALL areas of the Mentawais without constraint. For land camps to even consider attempting to subvert that (either legally, or through bribery/ corruption – the favored method) would create an absolutely irreconcilable situation between boat/camp relationships – which are already fragile at best.”
But Jody doesn’t let the charter boat industry off the hook either. He says rates of pay for Indonesian crews are still far below international standards and do not fairly compensate crews for their time at sea, away from family and loved ones. Where top end boats are charging customers top rates, he says local crews should be paid at least accepted minimum pay rates, instead of having to rely on tips from passengers at the end of each trip.
THE LAND CAMP PIONEER
Christie Carter was the first to open a land camp in the Mentawais, with his Wave Park Losmens, six years ago, and seems to have succeeded in maintaining good relations with the locals and rival operators. Quite an achievement. He has very definite ideas about how he would like to see the surf industry regulated in the Mentawais. “I would like to see the government pursue their interest in enforcing regulations regarding development in the Mentawais. To date they have had some misguided advice from various sources about the best way to approach the problem. Personally, I think that development should be controlled by the local government at the Mentawai level, which they already have the legal right to do.”
Christie envisages a tiered licensing system catering for various levels of investment, and all types of travellers, from backpackers to five star, and definite limits on boat and land camp numbers according to the “carrying capacity” of the various waves and regions.
He sees one of the major problems with any regulated system as entrenched corruption, which means any tax revenues collected don’t get where they are most needed. “The local population could best benefit from surfing by having a system in place that guarantees them revenue from the operators who are diligently paying their taxes. At the moment there are problems on both sides of the board. Some operators aren’t paying, and the money that is being paid isn’t getting to where it needs to get to.”
He also sees a role for the surf industry to try and protect the natural environment of the Mentawais. “The government and private interests need to work together to keep fishermen from dynamiting and cyaniding the reefs in the Mentawais. They should also be working together for a system of mooring buoys instead of anchoring at key areas where the damage is most noticeable. As the Mentawai population grows, there should be a real push in education to convince locals to keep their beautiful beaches clean.”
And, he predicts, charter operators and land camps will have to learn to work together for their mutual benefit. “For the most part, in my experience, boats and land camps have to work together wherever we are. We all come up short on supplies and logistics every once in a while. It’s in everybody’s best interests to get along and stay in touch. It’s a jungle out there. For those of us that live here full-time, we have a really close-knit expat and local mixed community over here. Everybody knows everybody else, why should we fight?”
Whatever happens, he says, the pace of change in the Mentawais will only accelerate. “Relative to what has happened in the past 10 years, surfing will change the Mentawais way more in the next 10. It’s exponential.”
THE CAMP AND BOAT OPERATOR
Tom Plummer has spent seven seasons in the Mentawais working on charter boats and has recently become a partner in the Aloita Resort. As such, he straddles the usual divisions and vested interests of water and land-based operators. “Obviously, I’d like to see some sort of sustainable management plan for the Mentawais. This is my home now,” he says.
Tom also owns the Substance boardriding store in Padang, is a master five skipper, holds an honors degree in Indonesian Studies and is an accredited interpreter and translator. He’d like to see a cap on boats and camps, and open sharing of all breaks.
He expects to see the number of charter boats drop rapidly as the impact of the new competition from land camps, and recent increases in fuel prices, hit home. “Of the 20-odd chicken boats which used to do the run out of Bali and down through southern Lombok to Lakai Peak, there now remains only a couple of operators. We will see the same happen in the Mentawais over the next few years as operating costs increase dramatically (fuel tripled in price in the space of a couple of months late last year) and margins get smaller. The costs of departure for my boat Naga Laut have doubled since last year. There is nowhere in Southeast Asia where charter boats can enjoy the margins which were obtainable a few years ago in the Mentawais. The salad days are over.”
Tom has devised a detailed management plan that is based on limiting the number of charter boat licenses to the 30 or so boats currently operating, with an annual license of fee of US$3,000 payable to the Mentawai government. Licenses could be bought and sold, much like commercial fishing licenses, with stamp duty payable to the local government, but no new licenses would be issued.
“The benefits of a well managed surfing industry in the Mentawais hasn’t hit home to local people properly. They are generally disenfranchised compared to a bunch of Padang locals who have become very wealthy via servicing the charter industry,” he says.
THE TRAVEL AGENT
Anthony Marcotti handles bookings for Martin Daly’s fleet of five charter boats, his own company, Saraina Koat Mentawai’s five boats, and is part owner of the recently opened Kandui Resort. As such, he books roughly a quarter of all the surfers who go to the Mentawais, from his Huntington office, in California.
He’s concerned about the nature of some of the new developments, but optimistic that all can work together for the common good of the islands, if there is a cohesive plan in place. “The situation out there right now is an influx of a few resorts spaced out evenly among the chain. For me the real dilemma is that a few of them have people with no experience in Mentawai tourism, boat trips or land resorts funding them and running them,” he says. “It’s especially disheartening because a few of them lack a solid plan of action to help the local population improve their livelihood and to my knowledge no one else besides us and Martin are actively involved with SurfAid’s efforts over there. What they are doing in the Mentawais and in North Sumatra is amazing.”
Saraina Koat is behind SurfAid’s ‘Wave of Compassion’ fundraising surf trip, and have worked closely with the local population in their area in the planning and construction of their resort. “During the course of production, a process that has taken almost two full years to complete, we have directly employed over 60 local Mentawai workers and artisans and have continued to employ over 30 people since April of 2006. Our partnerships with the local villagers in our surrounding areas offer many benefits; economic freedom, employment and training opportunities to improve their future.”
He would like to see a cap on the number of boats and camps in the islands, and limits on the number of guests per camp. “Ideally, I would prefer to see the land-based resorts agree to a strict number of guests – 12 to 16 per location – and for the Mentawai government to follow through on their plans to limit the maximum number of licenses for these types of resorts at five.”
He’s also adamantly opposed to claims for exclusivity of any of the breaks. “That goes against what a trip to the Mentawais is all about. It just doesn’t seem right to restrict people who have traveled all that way to one specific wave or zone.”
THE AID WORKER
Dr. Dave Jenkins is one figure in the whole Mentawai surfing scene without a vested interest, other than the reduction of disease and suffering among the Mentawai people. The organization he founded six years ago, SurfAid International, is widely acknowledged as the main positive to come out of surf tourism for the local population. SurfAid has successfully reduced malaria by up to 75% in its first two pilot villages and has since spread its operations throughout the islands and beyond.
Ironically, and unintentionally, it is partly SurfAid’s work in reducing malaria that has made the whole prospect of land camps in the Mentawais more achievable. Predictably, land developers claim the threat of malaria in the islands was always overstated by a surf charter industry intent on keeping visiting surfers off land and on boats. But Dr. Dave says, although the overall situation has improved, there is still the very real threat of malaria.
“If surfers are staying near SurfAid target villages then, yes, the risk of getting malaria has and will continue to reduce thanks to the success of our projects,” he says. “However, until such time that the place is malaria-free then on-land surfers should be sensible and careful. They should consult their doctor about using preventative medicines such as Malarone and Doxyclcine and always use an insecticide-treated mosquito net. If they are staying a long time they should carry a rapid diagnostic test kit and ACT, the new treatment for cerebral malaria.”
SurfAid’s main focus, however, is the wellbeing of the long suffering locals. “SurfAid wants the best for the people. In some ways we are a voice for them. I think the best chance for the people to benefit is via a ‘Joint and Co-operative Tourism Agreement’ between the various stakeholders,” he says.
Dr. Dave points to a meeting organized by Conservation International for all stakeholders in the Mentawai surf industry in September as a positive sign. “Conservational International are very interested in creating an ‘Eco Marine Reserve’ in the Mentawais and their eco-tourism guidelines hold the best framework I’ve seen to date that could genuinely result in a win/win for all. They have proven it can work and we should at the very least listen to their plans and encourage all stakeholders to do so. I have no doubt that SurfAid can make a very significant contribution to the whole plan. We are currently planning a ‘malaria-free Mentawai project’ with the distribution of mosquito nets to over 80% of all Mentawai people.”
Without such centralized planning, Dr. Dave says surf tourism in the Mentawais could easily follow the destructive pattern set elsewhere in the world. “Without the above I find it hard to see anything constructive planned and therefore it will continue to develop in whatever form – probably more boats, resorts, more crowds, more tensions and little added benefit to the people.”
The locals, he says, are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact surfing could have on their islands. “We recently spent a lot of time speaking to the people on this issue in surf areas such as Katiet. They want surfing, they want jobs, but want respect for their culture. They don’t like nakedness or even small shorts and bare chests walking through their villages. They are especially worried about new diseases like Aids and prostitutes arriving.”
After some initial hesitation, the surf industry seems squarely behind SurfAid’s efforts in the Mentawais. “The resort owners to date all seem keen to help with community development ... Thanks to the support of the surfing industry SurfAid is having a growing impact. We shall significantly help nearly all of the 200 villages in the Mentawai in the coming years. It’s our full intention to ensure that surfing via SurfAid and other activities becomes one of the very best things that ever happened for the people of the Mentawais. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have that potential.”
THE SUSTAINABLE TOURISM CONSULTANT
Jess Ponting is one of the surfing world’s leading authorities on sustainable tourism and is completing a PhD on the Mentawai surf tourism industry. He is currently lecturing at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, but continues to advocate for sustainable tourism in the Mentawais.
“There is an entire body of knowledge, case studies and examples, entire academic journals dedicated to figuring out how tourism, with careful planning, can achieve this,” says Jess. “I can’t understand why surfing tourism seems to continually progress blindfolded, refusing to learn from its mistakes or the mistakes of others.”
As a keen and well-traveled surfer, his studies have eventually brought him around to some confronting views. “Painful as it has been as a surfer who has spent literally years (several) in dirt-floored losmen, bures, fales, etc, I have had to come to the point of respecting the right of resource owners to decide who uses their resources. The major concern of the surfing fraternity over the years seems to have been free access to waves above all else. The Mentawai situation is the end result of that logic – outsiders have devised the best and most convenient way to extract value from a surfing resource with a minimum of interaction with the resource owners, and a minimum flow of foreign exchange to those resource owners.”
In many ways, he says, we have simply taken advantage of the situation in the Mentawais because of the absence of a tradition of reef ownership.
“In Papua New Guinea reef owners are paid a fee for allowing surfers access to their reefs. In Fiji the rights of reef resource-owners are enshrined in law. Whether this extends to surfing is up for debate but in practice we all know about Tavarua. The Frigates Passage landowners charge surfers a fee, Nagigia Resort on Kadavu have negotiated controlled access with landowners and several other surf resorts are in the pipeline with similar controls negotiated with resource owners. It leaves a bad taste for the surfing purist to be prevented from just rocking up under your own steam and paddling out. However, I think we need to take a step back and view the bigger picture. In many cases these are extremely poor communities with limited means of achieving development through the resources available to them ... The important thing to remember is that it’s not up to us to decide what type of development is best for the Mentawais.
The Mentawai people must be empowered to decide what is best for themselves ... They have the world’s most concentrated, high quality and most consistent surf fields set amongst the dictionary definition of what paradise looks like to most westerners – a monumentally valuable resource. Managed carefully it could provide the economic base for community development in the islands. Managed poorly, the whole thing could turn to shit. But I think we as surfers need to recognize that it’s about them, not about us.”
Jess conducted numerous interviews with locals about their attitudes towards surfing for his PhD and uncovered some interesting views. “Some said they didn’t care if the surf was crowded (why should they?), only the surf companies cared, and they weren’t giving anything to the locals anyway. Another said that surf tourism was (and I quote) ‘killing the locals’ because the resorts were buying land at a one-off price which villagers had spent within a year and they were left with no land to live on or on which to plant coconuts. In this respect the Fijian model of long term leases probably works better. Pretty much every Mentawaian I interviewed advocated joint ventures between villages and resort developers rather than outright purchases of land and an enclave approach to resort building.
In reality though you won’t get major investors to come on board under these circumstances. None of the Mentawaians I interviewed were impressed by the charter industry. Many used similar language in describing how the Mentawai people were sick of being ‘watchers’. Watching tourists come and go on boats with no idea how they can get involved in the tourism industry.”
The principles of sustainable tourism provide very specific guidelines about the nature of any land-based development – from waste disposal to water treatment, power generation to packaging, cleaning products to building materials to architectural styles – guidelines that only the most ethically motivated developers are likely to follow. “Employing all the best systems is expensive but vital. Making some allowances for being in a fragile environment will also be important – you don’t need plunge pools for each room really, do you? Nice but hardly necessary. Ensuring building materials are gathered from sustainable sources i.e. timber not cut from the mangroves out the front or illegally logged from Sipora, and cement not made from coral blasted off the reef out front for that purpose.”
And who among the surf tourism operators, or surf tourists for that matter, is brave enough to really stop and consider the social and cultural impacts of surfing on remote island communities, where surfing is far and away the biggest outside influence on traditional lifestyles, and impressionable youth are likely to be easily made over in our own modern western image?
“Already there are noticeable changes, particularly in the Katiet community which is now very much a surf town,” says Jess. “This is influencing the youth and even the structure of the village which has moved out to the surf, and certainly the employment of villagers, many of whom, as you know, sell carvings to tourists from canoes ... Often village kids get the idea that surfers spend their whole lives bumming around in surf camps smoking pot, drinking, whoring, etc. I guess some do but at the risk of moralizing, these are not the aspirations that we should be encouraging to impressionable village youth. Are they?”
NOTE: The author sought the opinions of several local Mentawai people involved in the surf tourism industry and in the local government, but with the difficulties of communication with the islands, we were unable to get a response in time for this article. We will try and represent the views of the local people in a future article.
There are also numerous other experienced skippers and other figures involved in the Mentawai surfing industry who we were unable to contact in time for this article. We welcome further correspondence on this issue and encourage more discussion of how surfing can be a positive force, rather than a destructive one, in the Mentawai Islands.
As preposterous as it sounds, Tim Baker has been a surfing writer for 20 years, and now even manages to support a family through this elaborate sham. He has edited Australia’s Surfing Life and Tracks magazines, has written a couple of books, is working on a couple of others and is even going to have a fancy new website soon: www.bytimbaker.com. He was also recently invited to the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, where he entertained the literati with a bit of rough-edged surfer humour. Close followers of his work reckon he has sold out and prefer his early stuff.