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Jess McHugh
August 18, 2016

Tagazhout, a village in southwest Morocco of Berber origin, has long survived on its fish, as well as the production of beauty products such as argan oil. Peppered with colorful houses and fishing boats, the jagged coastline cuts into the ocean at intervals, seemingly indistinguishable from the beaches of other neighboring towns in the region of Agadir.

But as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer echoes through the streets five times a day, local villagers are not the only ones bustling for space on the crowded roads. Clad in wetsuits and boardshorts, surfers from around the world make their way toward the beach.

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Recent attention from a gaggle of intrepid surfers has triggered an influx of tourism to Tagazhout, bringing economic development with it. As in Costa Rica, California, Indonesia and beyond, surfing has created an entire tourist economy practically from scratch in this town, with surfers bringing everything from hotels to restaurants to board shops.

Two such adventurers to Tagazhout were Samuel Wills and Thomas McGregor, Oxford-trained economists with a passion for waves. Tired of the dreary weather of the UK, the pair traveled to the Moroccan surf haven over a year ago and became inspired to complete a research project that studied the effect of surfing on local economies.

“I thought I was going to a really isolated little fishing village just to surf this wave. It was a nighttime flight, it was dark everywhere except for the lights just around this little fishing village which is really lit up,” Wills told Travel + Leisure of his first trip to Tagazhout. “There’s nothing different between this village and the village up the road except for the surfing waves.”

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The economists compared the quality of surfing waves in a given area with that same area’s economic activity. “Good waves” were chosen by a website crowdsourced input from experienced surfers, and economic activity was measured by light emissions. Across more than 5,000 locations, they found a strong correlation between quality waves and higher levels of economic activity.

Taking into account food, drink, hotels, and other expenses, McGregor and Wills found that good waves amounted to an added $18-22 million per wave per year, or $50 billion globally.

This practice of quantifying wave-breaks has been deemed “surfonomics,” falling under the larger umbrella of natural resource economics.

In the span of a couple decades, Tagazhout went from being relatively isolated to being populated with shops, restaurants and taxi stands. Beyond the immediate economic effects—the proliferation of surf shops and hostels—the presence of surfing tourism has spilled over into all aspects of the economy: supporting local agriculture, fueling real estate development, and attracting local workers, according to Wills.

However, the value of the waves, as they translate into economic activity, is not completely independent of all extrinsic factors. Countries that had high levels of conflict or poor business infrastructure did not see as high a return on their quality waves as those of countries that did.

“It’s not enough just to have a really good wave, you’ve got to have the conditions conducive to surf tourism,” McGregor said.

More than 5,000 miles from Morocco, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the region of Tamarindo had long since emerged as one of those locales where surf tourism had taken hold and flourished. With its warm water, sandy beaches and a variety of surf-breaks suitable for wave-riders of all levels, Tamarindo was fertile ground for surfers when it began to get popular in the late 1980s. In the time since, surfers, along with scuba divers, beachgoers and all manner of explorers have flocked to the central American town.

One staple for surf aficionados in Tamarindo is the Iguana Surf Shop. Founded in 1989, the institution now hawks gear of all kinds, in addition to surf classes and other tours. The speed of development and tourist arrivals has skyrocketed in the past decade and a half, according to Lindsey Gaston, operations manager for Iguana and sister of the shop’s owner.

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“When my brother bought in 2000, there was only three surf shops at the time, and now there’s 37,” Gaston, told T+L, adding that the increase in restaurants and hotels has been just as drastic.

The trend has been similar in places as seemingly disparate as Indonesia and California: the surfers come first and everyone else follows. Such was the case in Californian surf spot Trestles, where surfers have been flocking to the shores since the days of the Beach Boys in the 1960s.

In recent years some 330,000 visitors to the region have spent $8-13 million per year on gas, restaurants, surf shops and sundries, according to Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation that has fought for natural conservation in the area around Trestles.

“They are the trendsetters and the early explorers,” said Nelsen, one of the pioneers of surfonomics. “The intrepid, explorer surfers were the first to show up.”

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