By Brad Melekian of the San Diego Tribune
In a move that seems likely to have a large impact on many traveling San Diego surfers (and surfers worldwide), Fiji’s minister of tourism last week announced that all restrictions on access to the surf throughout the Fijian islands will be lifted.
For the many San Diego surfers who have routinely visited Fiji’s exclusive surfing resorts, such as Tavarua, this is significant, as Fiji’s system of reef rights — wherein individual tribes have exclusive control over who uses the reefs and when — has for years provided the structural foundation for surf resorts throughout the country. These resorts are unique to surfing, as they only grant access to a limited number of surfers at a given time, thus limiting the crowd in the lineup. In exchange for this guarantee of exclusivity, these local resorts are able to charge high premiums.
Fiji Minister of Tourism Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum suddenly and unexpectedly issued the Regulation of Surfing Areas Decree on Thursday, which, according to Radio Fiji, “cancels any existing instrument of title, including any lease or license — without payment of any compensation” to the current rights holders.
This could have a profound effect on the surf resorts in Fiji, which over the years have become among the most popular in the world. The most established and popular of those resorts is Tavarua, a small island with world-class waves. In the early 1980s, the Tavarua Surf Resort was established, providing one of surfing’s best travel experiences, as only guests at the resort are allowed to surf Tavarua’s waves. The resort keeps a strict limit of 36 guests per week, which makes for light crowds on the famous waves at Cloudbreak and Restaurants.
Though this exclusivity has come at a steep price for guests — $3,995 per person for seven days — Tavarua has long been considered one of the premier surf-travel destinations on the planet, both for the quality of surf and the uncrowded conditions.
The end of Fiji’s reef-rights system would drastically change the nature of surf tourism throughout Fiji.
According to reports, Sayed-Khaiyum, the tourism minister, believes changing the nature of reef rights will open the country to more surf travelers, and thus more tourism revenue. While many surfers consider Fiji’s resorts a premier destination, the limits on access prevent the volume of surf tourism to Fiji from reaching the number that flows to other select destinations such as Hawaii and Indonesia.
The date for the changes remains unspecified by the government, which has businesses in the area waiting to see how and when these changes will be implemented. It was not immediately clear how local businesses would be affected. Calls to Tavarua resort were not immediately returned, but Tavarua co-founder Jon Roseman released a statement saying Tavarua would wait to see how the decree affects its operation.
In the world of surfing, Fiji’s reef rights have spawned broader debate about the possibility of the Tavarua model being adopted elsewhere, and about the ethics of limiting access to the surf.
While the market seems to speak for itself, as spots such as Tavarua are often booked months in advance, some surfers have an aversion to such exclusivity on moral grounds, as surfing has always been an open-source sport. But as surfing becomes more popular, the resort model seems like an effective way to manage the crowds, in much the same way that ski resorts do.
If the Fijian government is betting on increase revenue from surf tourism, they are tapping a potentially rich market. The estimated number of surfers worldwide has grown to nearly 5 million, a number that is likely to continue increasing.