El Salvador’s 170 Million Dollar Bet On Surfing 

The Central American nation of El Salvador spent decades being associated withwar,gangs, andmurders.

Such attrocities generally do not result in a magnetic-like attraction for tourists. However, a young president has some bold ideas about changing his country’s reputation, most notably the ‘Surf City’ campaign.   

With roughly USD $70 million already injected into a surf tourism-oriented growth strategy over the past three years — and a freshly-approved USD $100 million more on the way — the small nation is hoping that surfing can catalyze change.

It’s no coincidence that a developing country the size of New Jersey is about to become the first Central American nation to host a CT. Instead, it’s the result of a long-term strategic plan by the new government of El Salvador. 

There’s a lot to unravel here. Shall we? 

Bukele’s belief in surfing

To understand the unprecedented nature of what is happening in El Salvador, you need to understand the unprecedented nature of President Nayib Bukele — a young, social media savvy disruptor of the status quo. He doesn’t shy away from being a millennial, preferring a backwards cap over a suit and tie and publicly sending his executive orders via Twitter. 

Most known for his country’s bold move of making Bitcoin legal tender, Bukele came into office with big ideas to turn around his country’s image of violence, gangs, and civil war. 

And how did he exactly plan to tackle such a gargantuan task? With the help of surfers, of course.

While speaking to the competing nations at the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games Bukele said, “To change all the things that [El Salvador] suffered in the past we had to build a new destiny. As strange as it sounds, we decided that surfing would be part of that destiny. Surfing is one of the pillars of our future.”

Even though he has never surfed and has no interest in trying, he may be one of the sport’s most influential allies.

“For tourists to be interested, the conversation in El Salvador needs to be about surfing and not death. Hopefully, we can become a country that doesn’t have to count murders,” Bukele explained to a visiting delegation of Californian tourism authorities back in 2019. 

And no matter what you think about his unique brand of politics, Bukele certainly has put his money where his mouth is. 

As soon as the new administration took office in June of 2019, the ‘Surf City’ strategy was off the ground and running. 

Right out the gates, millions of public and private funds started flowing into tourism infrastructure, surf events, and marketing campaigns. Projects such as new water treatment facilities, tourism police stations, urban corridors, bike lanes, boardwalks, and wider internet access sought to position El Salvador as a regional — or even a global — leader for surf tourism.

Much of the ‘Surf City’ money has flowed directly into the hands of surfing organizations, as the country hosted a slew of competitions that include four ISA World Championships (including a Tokyo 2020 qualifier in 2021 and now a Paris 2024 qualifier in 2023), three ALAS Latin Tour events, and, now, a WSL CT event. 

For a country of 6 million people with a GDP of just USD $24 billion — less than any individual US state —  these investments are huge. 

Erin Brooks, seen here winning the ISA World Junior Games in El Salvador over the weekend. Photo: Mike Rodriguez/ISA

So, is it working? 

Unlike Bukele, El Salvador’s Minister of Tourism Morena Valdez is an avid surfer. She’s been tasked with the logistics of making the whole thing happen and asserts that El Salvador’s investment is unlike anything the surf world has seen before. 

“[The investment] is unprecedented,” explained Valdez. “We’ve observed other top surf destinations like Indonesia, Hawaii, and California, but none have emphasized surfing as much as us.”

Early indicators seem to show that their bets on surfing are paying off. 

According to Valdez, the pandemic put a damper on their initial projections, but El Salvador’s tourism industry has already recouped 80% of its pre-pandemic levels thanks to Surf City. That recovery places them among the leaders in the world. They are expecting 1.9 million visitors this year, approaching their 2019 high of 2.5 million.

Bukele claims that their investments in 2019 and 2021 directly led to 13,000 additional visitors who injected USD $15M into the economy. 

And Valdez said that “hosting surf events led to a 30 percent increase in visitors during event windows.”

Marcelo Castellanos, a surf coach and founder of the surf resort Puro Surf, says that the results can already be seen in his business and the local community.

“Surf instructors are super busy with more people wanting to learn,” said Castellanos. “Everybody has more clients — the photographers, guides, transportation, restaurants. Since the Surf City campaign started I’ve seen an increase of tourists, particularly more families coming, not just the hardcore surfers. Puro Surf’s sales have increased by around 20% – 25%.”

Even the fact that the WSL is willing to host an event in the country speaks to the campaign’s success.

Valdez pegged the cost of bringing the CT to El Salvador at USD $2.5 million, roughly the same figure the nation paid to host the ISA’s Olympic-qualifying World Surfing Games.

“Bringing this event to El Salvador positions us as a Mecca of surfing in the region,” said Valdez. 

A well-run event is “worth more than any advertising campaign,” due to the positive visibility and exposure that results from it, according to Valdez.

Valdez says they are shooting to become a staple on the CT, but admits that the WSL would first like to see how things go post-event before picking up negotiations. 

Watch this to assure yourself that nobody on the CT wants to see Bryan Perez’s name in their heat at the upcoming event.

And is everyone on board? 

On the ground in El Salvador, the Surf City campaign largely has the local surfer’s stamp of approval. 

Bryan Perez, the nation’s top surfer, believes that “it’s going to change the country.”

Perez, who will compete in the trials for a slot in the CT event, added, “Bringing the CT to El Salvador is going to be a big opportunity for the locals to work and surf with the best in the world.”

And while Perez admits that a minority of local surfers are wary of the influx of surfers in the lineup, he is ready to receive everyone with open arms and “welcome them to [his] home.”

Is surfing so powerful that it can reverse the negative image created by decades of war and violence?

Bukele certainly thinks so, but only time will tell. And if the investment proves to be successful in the long term, El Salvador may be trailblazing a template for other surf-rich developing countries to employ.

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