Kew’s Corner 1/09

Henry Morales is the founder and managing director of Wavehunters Surf Travel ( www.wavehunters.com), a top-notch, full-service agency that started in Santa Barbara, now based down in Oceanside. With 10 years’ experience of blending business with surf travel, I recently caught up with Morales, 34, to chat a bit about the state of the industry.

Kew: How and why did you establish Wavehunters?

Morales: By accident. I worked off-and-on for three travel agencies in five years as a sort of parallel career to my academic career. I was working part-time with a Santa Barbara-based agency called Your Travel Center, which supported us in developing our own niche clientele–it seemed like everything was pointing toward surf travel. In those five years, I learned the nuts and bolts of the travel and airline industries, and with all of the surfing magazines I had consumed for years, I sort of put the two together into a kind of surf-travel-logistics enterprise.

How has the surf travel industry evolved since you became officially immersed within it?

When I started in 1997 there was a lack of established operators. There were only a few boats really operating in the Mentawais and Maldives; besides Tavarua, the South Pacific was relatively unknown; and Latin American surf travel was pretty limited outside of Costa Rica and Mexico, with maybe a camp in Peru and Panama. But today, since 1997, surf travel has evolved in three key ways: (1) Development of professional live-aboard “fleets” in Indonesia and the Maldives, and the emergence of surf resorts and professional surf tour operators in developing areas of Latin America, like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Galapagos, Peru, mainland Mexico, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc. (2) The emergence of “frontier surf travel tours–Papua New Guinea, Montebello Islands in northwest Australia, Pohnpei, Fiji’s Lau Group, New Caledonia, the outer atolls in the Maldives, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Sumatra, Timor, Mozambique–there are now legitimate operators in these and other obscure regions. (3) Normalization of last-minute surf-trip planning based on surf forecasting.

What are the pros and cons of your line of work?

The pros are traveling to exotic surfing locations and working with local operators to develop and promote viable surfing tourism at each location; integrating surf forecasting and meteorological technology into trip planning, which I always find fascinating; the study of coastal and oceanic geography and topography; interacting with surfers from all over the world on a daily basis and communicating in other languages sometimes, particularly Spanish, as we have many Latin operators. The cons are a tremendous amount of office work and responsibility–Wavehunters is essentially a travel agency (which is not a glamorous job) that evolves around surfing as much as a meticulous desk job. I am personally responsible for managing a large amount of information and overseeing several thousand surfing tours each year, ensuring that every one of them goes well. Minor mistakes in this business can result in major screw-ups.

Where do you see the surf travel industry headed?

For the next five years or so, I see the current trends continuing with more boats, more surf resorts, and more surf tour operators in the already-popular regions. Right now Wavehunters sends over 90 percent of its clients to approximately 10 destinations: the Mentawais, the Maldives, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Samoa, Fiji, Pohnpei, and Ecuador. I think there will eventually be more traffic to the more obscure “frontier destinations as the more-accessible and well-known destinations become saturated with surfers and are eventually crowded. Oceania is still largely unexplored and unknown–there are entire island chains and archipelagos which most surfers have never heard of. Then there is Africa, which has a massive coastline on two sides, much of it still unexplored, and places like the island of Madagascar, which is larger than the state of California and surrounded by water on all sides. Eventually, even political hotbeds and mostly avoided destinations like Angola or Ivory Coast or Madagascar will normalize and open up. Infrastructure improvements and the migration of pioneering surf explorers into the lesser-traveled areas and the foundation of credible surfing tourism operations at these locations will turn somewhere like Papua New Guinea or Mozambique into the next Indonesia or Costa Rica perhaps by the year 2020. Artificial reefs will also be a big part of the future of surf travel, because there is a finite number of world-class breaks, but if you can use artificial reef technology to transform mediocre or non-existent surfing spots into world-class waves, the possibilities are endless. Simulated waves may also be a thing of the future, as wave pool technology gets closer to reality or even surpasses it.