Surf Protection, Surf Economics
June 21 2009

Towns That Surfing Built: Tamarindo, Costa Rica

by Chad Nelsen

I was sitting at a coffee shop yesterday and saw an ad for property for sale in Playa Grande, near Tamarindo in Costa Rica. One of the selling points was that its next to a 18 hole golf course. I have been meaning to write a piece on Tamarindo as part of a series called "Towns that Surfing Built" and this ad was the impetus.

As recently as the early 90's Tamarindo, Costa Rica was still a small, relatively low profile surf destination. It was featured in Endless Summer II as a quaint little surf town - not the kind of place you'd find an 18 hole golf course.

Costa Rica and more recently Nicaragua and Panama have become hot beds for America real estate venture and coastal tourism. There is no question, Costa Rica is for sale.

In contrast to the Tamarindo seen in Endless Summer II, here's a more recent description from the Lonely Planet:

Lonely Planets Description:
If there are any aging hippies in your family who traveled through Costa Rica back in the day, make a point of asking them about Tamarindo when you return home – you’ll no doubt be regaled with dreamy tales of watching sea turtles nest on an abandoned beach. And, of course, when they in turn ask you what it’s like now, consider the sanctity of their nostalgia and lie through your teeth.

Tamarindo has long been on the radar of jet-setting surfers. In the immortal classic Endless Summer II, Patrick and Wingnut stopped here to visit their buddy Robert August (who still leaves here), though in recent years Tamarindo is playing host to a different breed of traveler.

Today, the beach is full of blubbery North American and European holidaymakers who spend most of their time frying in the sun like beached whales. After their complexion darkens from a pasty white to a rosy shade of skin cancer, they spend a little time perusing the town’s eclectic mix of tourist shops, tourist restaurants, tourist bars and tourist cafés. And then it hits them – ‘This place is booming! Let’s buy some property here!’

In the span of only a few years, Tamarindo changed from a small beach town into a well-to-do (and oh so fashionable!) suburb of North American and European ex-pats. You can go boutique shopping in air-conditioned strip malls while sipping a cold mocha latte. Or why not slip in a quick Botox session before taking your dog to the groomer?

To be fair, plenty of people do enjoy them selves in Tamarindo, and it’s a great place to meet tourists from every corner of, well, America. It’s easy to criticize Tamarindo, but it is what it is. If you came to Costa Rica to party all night long, sleep with strangers and surf some great (but crowded) waves, welcome to paradise. But if an overdeveloped beachfront full of gringo tourists and Dolce & Gabbana-clad ‘locals’ isn’t your thing, remember that Costa Rica is just a few kilometers away.

This may be the natural evolution of a coastal tourism destination - part of the "Tourism Area Life Cycle". Colonialized by surfers who stimulate increased tourism development that attracts more mainstream tourism, etc.

The bigger questions surround what ultimately happens to these locations. Do they thrive or suffer from over development and then lose their charm? Do the locals benefit or become become part of the service industry lacking opportunity to benefit from the boom? Do these places eventually get passed over for other locations? Is there really a problem or are we just nostalgic for the "good old days"?

One of the jokes in Costa Rica centers on this phenomenon: where once a man sat on a gold mine, now he either cleans the toilets or does grounds-work for the new condo that is built on his former property.
(Source: Keeping It Rich - A Costa Rican Paradise Kimberly Johnston )

In Tamarindo, the increased development has lead to water quality problems - Association Says Tamarindo Beach Unsafe To Swim. They lost their Blue Flag - water quality eco-certification and now feel that poor water quality is affecting tourism.

One of the questions I have been contemplating is if surfers bare any responsibility for this cycle and if so, can our travel choices make a difference.