The world remains in a state of flux. Travel restrictions are lifted, only to be hammered back in place a few days later. So it's no surprise people are wary of booking missions to far flung places.
And surf travel industries are facing the brunt of global insecurity at the moment. Resorts have remained empty as flights are grounded, even the ones that are still flying have faced a severe decline in passenger numbers.
But we're all ocean enthusiasts. And we don't do well when it comes to being in one place for too long. We all want waves or time in the ocean. Here, Surfline's Dashel Pierson discusses options with Sean Murphy, the president of WaterWays Travel, to find out when, and how, it'll be safe to travel for waves again.
Have you ever seen anything remotely similar to this complete halt in travel, specifically surf travel?
No, not at all. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this for surf travel, or travel in general. The closest thing would’ve been 9/11, when the airports shut. But that was for a relatively short period of time. As for coronavirus, right around mid-March, everything came to a screeching halt. Surf travel, and travel in general, just completely stopped.
What’s been the impact from a business point of view?
We handle a lot of travellers, and a lot of our customers plan their trips way in advance. So, while bookings came to a full stop as far as new bookings go, we had a lot of existing bookings that we still need to accommodate. Either reschedule, ensure they get travel credits, or refunds. That’s been an ongoing process. For example, we had people scheduled to go on a trip in April. Then they can’t go, so they reschedule for June. Then they can’t go again. So, it’s just been a lot of that. We’re not getting any revenue, but there’s still been a ton of work to be done.
People are still optimistic. They want to travel; they want to get out of their houses. They’re booking trips for October
People are still optimistic. They want to travel; they want to get out of their houses. They’re booking trips for October, and we’ll do everything we can to accommodate that, but all we can do is just wait and see at this point.
You probably saw a lot of cancellations…
A ton of ‘em. But the problem is, a lot of operators around the world aren’t offering refunds. So, people are just getting credit from the operators to travel at a different time. A lot of people we work with are giving people three years to use their travel credit – that’s been really nice.
It’s not just the COVID thing that’s preventing people from using their travel credit; they also might have lost their job. People need some money in their pockets on top of their travel package, so the operators have been accommodating of that as well.
How about surf resorts, tour guides... How has this affected them?
The layers in surf travel are so deep, as far as who has been affected by this. First off, the resorts have obviously been hit massively hard. They don’t have the income coming in, and whatever income they had from travel credits is now drying up. They’re having to dig deep to maintain their costs – whether it’s land leases, keeping the lights on with generators, staffing, etc. All that trickles down to the local community. Pretty much all these resorts have been forced to lay off staff.
For so many of the places we work with, they’ve been trying to keep the staff on as much as possible. They know the benefit that all those wages have going into the villages. Staff costs are significant, but they’re not the biggest thing that goes into those operations. That’s been a really cool thing to see. But really, you can only do that for so long until the income picks back up.
Has anyone been going on surf trips lately? Like smaller road trip strike missions?
I’ve heard of people going down to Mexico, but I’m not totally sure how they’re doing it. I think you can drive over the border then take domestic flights from there. Cabo has been open. I believe you can fly into Salina Cruz now, but to get to the waves you need to drive through some towns – and not all of those have reopened.
They should be opening up within about a week. Nicaragua is one place that never fully closed down, but nobody was going. Things are starting to open back up again. The Maldives is opening back up August 15, I believe it is. El Salvador, I believe is August 6.
What about people getting stuck in foreign countries – what have you heard about that?
I haven’t heard of anybody getting stuck since the very beginning. There were handfuls of people stuck in places when everything shut down. There was a Russian guy stuck at Cinnamon Dhonveli in the Maldives and he rode the whole thing out. He just got out of there. He was surfing all by himself for four months. Some people got stuck in Fiji as well.
I was actually in Fiji when the situation started getting really bad. I was talking with people in the United States as things were getting crazy – when all the toilet paper was flying off the shelves, and Costco was just a madhouse. We decided, as a family, to just extend our stay on Tavarua. We didn’t want to go back to that madness. We felt very secure there.
Then, after a couple days, Fiji decided to close their borders completely. It was only like a three-day notice that we had to get out of there – the same with our customers who were there
Then, after a couple days, Fiji decided to close their borders completely. It was only like a three-day notice that we had to get out of there – the same with our customers who were there. Those remaining flights filled up really, really quickly. Luckily, we were able to get our passengers out of there.
Are people booking trips further out?
People really do want to still travel. We have people calling us up saying, ‘Can you send me anywhere right now? I just wanna go somewhere. Anywhere you can send me, I’ll go there.’
But, in addition to that, we do have people booking trips for September through December and all the way into next year. Some of these people are making arrangements for places that are currently closed. Under our preexisting policy, deposits were nonrefundable. Within 30 days, your deposit was nonrefundable. But we’re waiving those terms. If anyone wants to make a booking to travel, and a situation pops up where they can’t go, we will be able to refund their deposit – or make it usable as a credit.
That’s subject to any airline fees, which we can’t control. But with any of our resorts – Namotu, Tavarua, Cinnamon Dhonveli in the Maldives, or in Mexico or Central America – if you were to book a trip now for September, for example, and you’re not able to go, we’ll refund you. We’re going so far as, it doesn’t have to be a situation where you can’t travel. It can just be if you’re not comfortable with traveling at that time.
How can surfers help tour operators or resorts stay afloat?
By making a reservation, that’s the best way to do it. At a lot of places – Chicama Surf Resort in Peru, Macaronis Surf Resort in Indonesia, Nemberala Beach Resort are all great examples – if you want to book a trip now, you’re getting some really great incentives for discounted travel. And you don’t even need to book a date. You can book a trip for Chicama, which I think is at about a 40 percent discount, and it’s basically just like a credit. You can use it in the future whenever you want to go.
Someone’s concern may be, ‘What happens if I book this trip, then in a year when I wanna go, they’ve gone out of business?’ Places like Chicama and Macaronis have great infrastructure…but that is a possibility that could happen. It’s just the uncertainty of what we’re going through.
Will there be a lingering effect on surf travel once the dust settles?
Once things are able to open up, and people are able to travel without this huge concern – which might not be until there’s a vaccine available – I do think the industry is going to bounce back really quickly. People like to travel, especially surfers. We prioritise surf travel. It’s not like someone who wants to go on vacation and see the Grand Canyon. That person doesn’t have the passion, like surfers, who prioritise that kind of spending.
As far as long-term effects, there’s going to be a lot of the local communities hurting from the loss of income. It’s hard to say how long-lasting that will be. There are operations that are going out of business. Some of these small, like surf and yoga retreats, have been forced to close shop. But for the established resorts, the ones that have a lot of investment, they will persevere.
Personally, I can’t wait to get out of town. It looks like Bali will open back up in mid-September. And Bali is such a jumping off point to a lot of other places in Indonesia. I have people looking to book for that opening date. For me, looking at the numbers right now, I don’t feel comfortable getting on a plane. That could change by September. But I’ll tell you one thing, if you can get down there, it’s going to be a really good time to be there.
Cover shot by Rick Avena