Surfers are often the first to discover far-flung travel destinations, largely because the pursuit of perfect waves is a strong motivator in the face of minor inconveniences such as dirt roads and a lack of running water, electricity, and basic accommodations.
The history of surf travel is almost a groundhog-day saga of repeated story lines: feral surfers discover a wave, the word spreads, and more surfers and tourists arrive, changing the local economy and setting the region on a path of growth—sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In Nicaragua, this predictable path of discovery and economic growth is well under way. But for one tiny town called Playa Gigante, the expanding opportunity that goes hand-in-hand with the tourism boom is taking on new dimensions, partly thanks to Project Wave of Optimism (Project WOO), a surf-stoked nonprofit founded seven years ago by former Peace Corps volunteers.
"Project WOO was created to ensure that our surfing footprint in Nicaragua is a sustainable one," said Project WOO’s executive director, Trent Gordon.
With project goals determined entirely by the community, Project WOO hopes that the town can avoid common problems that often accompany rapid growth in the third world.
Operating out of the Tola surf zone, Project WOO has already created a surf mentorship program where kids can earn donated boards through community service, initiated a waste management program, and procured a school bus that facilitates access to education.
So what's next on Project WOO and Playa Gigante's to-do list? They’re building a health center using the crowd-funding site indiegogo.com to help raise money from those who have been touched by the Nicaraguan surf paradise.
Playa Gigante has already achieved its primary goal of funding the healthcare center construction costs, and any additional funds will go towards operating costs and supplies.
GrindTV spoke to Project WOO's Bo Fox, a program manager, to learn more. A native of Palos Verdes, California, Fox was baptized (literally) into the community of Playa Gigante three years ago and hasn't looked back. Today, he knows everyone in Gigante and is the go-to person for local fisherman, surf hostel owners, boatmen, surfers, and visiting pros like Sterling Spencer, Paul Fisher, and Shea Lopez.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your relationship to Playa Gigante, and Project WOO.
As have most people, I first arrived here because of my draw to the ocean. She's led all of my adventures to date. After my first visit, I returned to Gigante to work with Project WOO. The Project WOO model makes sense to me … we are visitors to these coastlines and we create our own paradise. Assuring the local communities have a voice and role in this development seems the only logical way to proceed.
As Nicaragua becomes a well-known surf destination, what challenges do the people of Gigante face?
Depending on who you speak with, the answer will be different. Surfing and tourism bring opportunity initially, and the challenges seem to rear their head over the years to follow. Gigante is in the eye of the storm.
Here in Gigante, we've seen tourism for the past seven years, but only over the course of the last three years have we really seen it pick up. When asking the community, we've received a number of responses, but 99 percent of the community (at this point) welcomes tourism and the changes that accompany it.
The drawbacks are yet to be seen (by most). Inevitably we will see more foreign investment. This will jack up the land prices and potentially drive out local residents. This creates a wealth gap. Well-capitalized and educated foreign business owners can out-compete local business owners. Rural, local mom-and-pop businesses will have a tough time keeping pace with this growth. Drugs, delinquency, and prostitution have resulted in many budding tourism towns.
How is Project WOO is making a difference in Gigante?
Project WOO has worked hand-in-hand with the community of Gigante for the past seven years addressing community needs through community-selected projects. Our goal is to build human capacity. We are not here to impose our vision of a brighter future; but rather, we encourage ownership of community growth through development projects with the locals leading the way. We help equip local leaders with the skills to tackle needs within the community. Additionally, we are able to mobilize resources from the international community to provide technical and material support in the realization of these community projects.
Why is it important for the people of Gigante to build a health center?
Through our Sustainable Development Model, the community selected this health center project as their most pressing need. As such, the community mobilized to meet this need. Public Health (access to healthcare and basic health education) sits as the cornerstone for the positive and healthy development of any community, and we're excited to watch the walls go up for what inevitably will leave a lasting and measurable impact on this community for years to come.
What makes Nicaragua (and particularly Gigante) such a great surf destination?
Southern Nicaragua has arguably more surfable days than anywhere else in the world. The swell window here allows for surf year-round, and the enormous Lake Nicaragua sits to the east, creating its own weather pattern and sending us offshore winds 300-plus days a year. These are the ideal conditions for any surf spot. Furthermore, Nicaragua still tugs at the heartstrings of surf-explorers. It's wilder than Costa Rica, and cheaper as well. And Gigante has community roots. It's quiet and quaint (for the time being) and offers more local flavor than luxury resorts where the only locals you see are the ones working for the foreigners. People like to connect with the local culture when traveling.
Donate to Project WOO's health care center on Indiegogo.
Follow Gretchen Wegrich on Twitter.