Surf Tourism: Social Spatiality in El Tunco and El Sunzal, El Salvador

By Brie Iatarola.

Published by The Sport Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

When Salvadoran government officials signed the Peace Accords in 1992, the global surf community took note. For twelve years, civil war had ravaged the Central American country, leaving nearly 80,000 civilians dead or missing. Once the republic re-emerged as a popular surfing destination, miles of pristine beaches and near-vacant waves were no longer accessible only to the fearless. By the turn of the century, a beach town nicknamed El Tunco became a refuge where waves beckoned the war-weary. Between 1993 and 2009, El Salvador attracted an estimated 12.5 million tourists, many of them in search of surf. El Tunco’s evolution into a wavetopia raises several issues that warrant attention. This paper examines how the global surf industry affects El Tunco’s economic and cultural landscape. Grounds for the study concern tourism, property rights, capital investment, and the aftermath of neoliberal reforms. Ethnographic and field research conducted in August 2010 indicates property values in El Tunco have nearly tripled since 2005. Matters pertaining to land ownership and beach access also have aggravated social tensions. One central argument emerges: Surf tourism serves as a key sector in a depressed Salvadoran economy wherever waves are in demand. Published scholarly analyses dissecting the influence of the global surf industry on specific Central American countries are either undeveloped or nonexistent. The qualitative data presented should fuel discussions and promote more awareness among individuals who recognize surfing as a globalized lifestyle, sport and business.

Keywords: El Salvador, El Tunco, El Sunzal, Surf, Tourism, Neoliberalism, Property Rights, Civil War, Travel, Waves, Spatiality

The International Journal of Sport and Society, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.219-227. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 549.382KB).

Brie Iatarola

Graduate Student, Communication Department, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA

Brie Iatarola graduated from Arizona State University summa cum laude with honors and has a degree in journalism. She learned to surf while she was an undergraduate exchange student at the Universidad de Costa Rica. After ditching the desert to work as an assistant news editor in San Diego, California, she quit her job two years later and moved to Panama. There, she competed in contests sponsored by the Asociación Latinoamericana de Surfistas Profesionales. Witnessing the economic and cultural effects of the global surf industry in Central America eventually inspired her to return to graduate school. She holds a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently pursuing her doctorate in Communication.