Australia is a haven for surfers, but just how valuable is one of our favourite pastimes to the economy and our wellbeing?

The sun on your face, salt water in your hair, the surge of adrenaline as you race across the crest of a wave — those who surf will tell you there’s nothing like it.    

Eight-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore compared it to listening to a wonderful song or falling in love. Duke Kahanamoku, who grew up in Hawaii and is credited with popularising surfing in Australia, explained his love of the sport as “being rewarded with a feeling of complete freedom and independence”. 

Environmental economist Dr Ana Manero. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

It’s an intangible quality, Dr Ana Manero, a Research Fellow at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, says. But it’s also very valuable.  

“Every surfer knows the feeling of catching a wave,” she says. “The effects on your mental health, the physical exercise, the connection with your family, with your friends and with other members of the community; it’s all building into our social capital and that has a value.” 

Determining that value is the focus of Manero’s research on surfing economics — a discipline within environmental economics seeking to understand the real worth of surfing ecosystems.

One side of that, the financial or market value of surfing, is measured by calculating the money involved: how much people spend on travel, real estate prices near good surf breaks, the cost of lessons and gear, and how that all feeds into local, regional and global economies.

The other aspects — those intangible benefits to our wellbeing and society — are also important to quantify. “The impact that surfing can have on people’s wellbeing is largely overlooked by policymakers and academics,” Manero says.

More than a sport

Manero, who is based in Perth, Western Australia (WA), is one of the estimated 740,000 surfers in Australia.

She has experienced and witnessed the personal and societal benefits of surfing.

Ana Manero rides a surfboard while a wave breaks behind her.

Dr Ana Manero surfing in the Telos islands in Indonesia. Photo: Supplied

When her first daughter was born nine years ago, she joined Surfing Mums, a non-profit organisation where parents take turns watching each other’s children while members hit the waves. She now volunteers as the national president of the organisation.    

“It’s a very, very powerful community. I couldn’t have pulled through my PhD, working from home, with two kids under the age of four and no family support. It is about catching waves and getting the feel-good hormones in your brain. But it’s also about building social connections — for the mums and for the children too.”

Manero has also volunteered with Ocean Heroes, a WA-based charity that offers surf therapy to children on the autism spectrum.  

“Surfing is more than just a sport, it is really a lifestyle,” she says. “I go surfing because it’s part of my identity, it’s part of who I am, it makes me happy, it’s the way I connect with my children and with my friends in my community.” 

Dr Ana Manero (right) with her daughter, Julieta. Photo: Supplied

Manero’s primary role at ANU is with the Water Justice Hub, where she works on questions around water economics and governance, including equitable access to water. “While freshwater and surf breaks are very different, both are part of the natural environment, which we need to understand and protect,” she says.  

Her inspiration to study the economics of surfing, in addition to her work on water resources, came during a surf trip to Portugal.

Ericeira, north of Lisbon, has a long history as a fishing village, but it’s also a surfing hotspot; seven of its surf breaks make up Europe’s only World Surfing Reserve. These days, it’s also home to a growing number of trendy cafes and up-market hotels.   

“I realised that surfing was changing these communities,” Manero says. “One of the cafes had this interesting writing on the wall that read ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness. Happiness comes in waves’. 

“But people use their money to access waves, which in turn, makes them happy. It made me think about how there is a connection between economics and surfing.”

“We have a special opportunity to be doing this sort of work in Australia and it could become a blueprint for the rest of the world.” 

Dr Ana Manero

While there is a large body of data regarding the economic value of other water-based recreation activities in Australia such as fishing and swimming, there aren’t solid estimates of the contribution of surfing to the market and non-market economy.

“We know this information can be used to inform policies, it’s just that we haven’t applied it to surfing,” Manero says. “This is why I want to fill the gap. I have a PhD in environmental economics and I am also an avid surfer, so I understand both sides of the equation and I want to build those bridges.” 

Protecting our assets 

Australia has about 33,000 km of coastline. An estimated 87 per cent of the population lives within 50 km of the coast. And the country’s surf and beach culture is a huge part of the Australian identity and brand. But surfing ecosystems, which are a valuable natural asset, are in many cases under threat, Manero says.  

“In Australia, we just take waves for granted. The threats can come from climatic events like storms or changes in sediment movement, but also from man-made changes to the coastline. That could be building a new road, a port or pier, or anything we do that will inevitably change the morphology of the coasts, which affects how waves form.”

Not having a complete picture of the value of surfing means Australia is operating in a knowledge vacuum when making decisions that could affect surf breaks, Manero says. Building more resources and data could help safeguard natural resources and the value they bring to society.  

“It’s not only putting dollar amounts on things, it’s also understanding how people relate to the environment. Thousands of people move to remote areas to live close to good surf beaches. Surfing has a massive impact on shaping regional towns across Australia,” she says.  

“When we have that information, then we can define well-informed policies that balance the benefits and the costs for the greater good of the people who practise the sport, but also people who are benefiting from the sport through other ways.

Noosa is home to Australia’s only World Surf Reserve. Photo: Kevin/stock.adobe.com

That knowledge could inform large interventions such as building artificial reefs or wave pools, or smaller projects such as improving an access path or installing shark detection devices.  

“Without really understanding the benefits of surfing resources, every time we do something to the coasts, we could potentially be wiping out those values without any consideration,” Manero says.

“In the future, I envisage Australia developing laws that specifically safeguard surf breaks — like it has been done in New Zealand and Peru.” 

Manero is working with a team of researchers to examine the economic contribution of surfing at the Noosa World Surf Reserve. She recently received seed funding from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific that will enable her to carry out the first Australia-wide study on the value of surfing.  

“We have a special opportunity to be doing this sort of work in Australia and it could become a blueprint for the rest of the world.” 

Top image: Surfers on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Photo: Josh Withers/Unsplash

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