Meet a Sustainable Adventure Pioneer: Bodhi Surf School, Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica

Much Better Adventures Pioneer Series

We set up Much Better Adventures to promote adventure choices from people like us, who saw a problem with the world, but also saw an answer. This is an answer that begins with an adventure, but doesn’t end there. These particular adventures go on to advance local conservation and sustainable development, educate, change perspectives, and improve lives. These are our muchbetter Pioneers – world leaders in sustainable adventure.
Bodhi Surf School offer a fantastic surf school in Costa Rica, where not only can you learn to surf on some amazing breaks, but also take part in their yoga programs.

Who are you and your team?

Our team consists of 5 individuals: 2 husband and wife combos, and one baby:

Travis, 31, San Diego, USA
Pilar, 34, San Jose, Costa Rica
Gibran, 31, San Blas, Mexico
Adrianne, 24, Vancouver, Canada
Maya Paz, 1, San Jose, Costa Rica

Travis and Gibran both attended the University of San Diego and met during a semester abroad in Spain in 2002. They had both been surfing since they were kids, and found that they had much in common aside from just that. Gibran and Adrianne got married in 2007, and Travis and Pilar got married in 2009. Travis and Pilar had a daughter, Maya Paz, in 2011 and the team was fully formed.

Bodhi Surf School Locals

What inspired you to start, and how long have you been doing it?

Travis joined the Peace Corps in 2005 and was placed in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica. He immediately fell in love with the community, and that same year when his friend Gibran came to visit, they spoke about some day starting a business together. When he finished with the Peace Corps in 2008, Travis saw that there was still a market for a surf school, so he and Gibran began discussing different possible scenarios. By the end of 2009 it was decided that the 4 of them would give it a shot, and by mid-2010 Bodhi Surf School was in existence.

While Bodhi Surf School is just that – a surf school, all 4 of the members have very strong inclinations towards environmentalism, social awareness, and responsible/sustainable business practice. The word “Bodhi” is Sanskrit for “awareness” and was chosen for that very reason; while the company aims to teach surf, yoga, and provide its clients with a fun and fulfilling vacation, it also strives to promote awareness about the spheres within which it operates (marine conservation, sustainable tourism in Costa Rica, and community outreach, to name a few). We aim to be more than just a surf school, to provide an experience that is unique to the area and our personalities.

Bodhi Surf School Team Building

Why did you choose Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica?

We chose Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica, for several reasons. First, during his time stationed in the community with Peace Corps, Travis became very well acquainted with the community, many of its members, and some of the issues that it faces. He decided he wanted to start a business not just for personal benefit, but also for the benefit of the community; to be able to give back to a place he had fallen so in love with. Second, he realized that the community’s main beach was perfect for learning how to surf – a long, flat, sandy beach with beginner-to-intermediate-friendly waves all year round. Third, we all knew that due to the beauty of the area, it was just a matter of time before it would become as popular as other areas of Costa Rica, and so we wanted to help the trend of sustainable tourism take off in the region.

What makes you “muchbetter?”

Our excitement for what we do makes Bodhi Surf School “muchbetter”. We have the great advantage of doing something that we not only totally and completely believe in, but also love with a great passion. We have been told by former clients that while the surf and yoga does indeed live up to (or exceed) their expectations, it is actually eclipsed by our very-apparent enthusiasm and joy for what we do.

Any insider tip for your area?

If you come to Marino Ballena National Park, keep in mind that you will have to pay a $6 USD fee as an international tourist. To get the most of your money, bring a lunch and make it a full day: you can surf, boogie board, and swim at high tide, read a book and do some sun-tanning during mid tide, and do the unforgettable walk down the whale’s tail during low tide.

There are a whole host of great surf holidays on Much Better Adventures – check them out!

Island Tourism and Sustainable Development: Interview with Richard Butler, Strathclyde University

Island Tourism – Sustainable Perspectives

Islands are the most vulnerable and fragile of tourism destinations and will experience even more pressure as the combined impacts of economic, social and environmental change accelerate in the future. In order to understand the process of island tourism development, response to change and challenges and their journey to sustainability, the 2011 CABI book “Island Tourism – Sustainable Perspectives” (Edited by J Carlsen, Professor of Sustainable Tourism, Curtin University of Technology, Australia, R W Butler, Professor of International Tourism, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, UK) provides insights and instruction on topics including social, cultural, environmental and economic aspects of island tourism. It contains essential information for policymakers, planners, researchers, managers and operators within the tourism industry. Learn more & order this book from CABI.

*Through TIES partnership with CABI, special discounts (20~% off) are available to TIES members on all online purchases of CABI publications. Please go to Member Center to access the discount codes, or contact for information on this and other TIES member benefits.

Interview with Professor Butler
TIES: What makes island destinations particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, as compared to other types of tourism destinations?

Prof. Butler: In one sense, they are no more vulnerable than any other area, but often because their physical environment is relatively or absolutely small, they may have little margin for absorbing significant impacts – environmental as well as social and economic (because of small populations and economies). Additionally, some isolated destinations such as the Galapagos may have developed unique ecosystems which would be highly vulnerable to insertions of exotic species, or which may have populations not used to human contact (actions, diseases etc). There is also the issue that while many tourists and others anticipate islands – particularly remote ones – to be “untouched,” any changes are perceived as problematic. As with any ecosystem that has a limited range of species present (high arctic, for example), a loss or significant change in any single element can have a drastic effect on all other elements in the ecosystem. Some islands fall into such a category, even those not in extreme latitudes.

TIES: How can visitors and local operators act to mitigate the impacts of economic, social and environmental changes on island destinations?

Prof. Butler: Some management actions are fairly obvious, such as those practiced in the Galapagos and some national parks elsewhere. For example, no food allowed with visitors, no fires or smoking, no litter left behind, restrictions on access (normally restricted to designated trails only), no physical contact with animals or plants, no collecting, no removal of items. Numbers are generally the major issue but almost no place is willing to limit capacities when it comes down to the crunch; instead, so called “capacity levels” are raised regularly in order to allow more visitors. Limits on numbers and the size of cruise boats at any one time (as Bermuda has done) is one step. Limits on accommodation development, airport capacity, and harbor capacity are somewhat easy options to make polices for.

However, the real question is whether policy will be implemented. Islands have great possibilities of limiting numbers, and controlling actions and movement if they wish to do so. Most seem to wish to do so but never do because of alternative viewpoints relating to more senior levels of government and the private sector. Bear in mind, however, that many small islands also seem to want as many tourists as they can get, so local control is not necessarily the answer. In the case of national parks, it is quite often a senior “absent” government that might institute such arrangements, sometimes in the face of local opposition to restrictions on tourist numbers.

TIES: What advice do you have for tourism stakeholders (planners, researchers, operators etc.) in island destinations for areas to focus on in regards to education and program development (ie: critical issues)?

Prof. Butler: Decide what is really important, both for local people and for outsiders. If priorities can be established, then these can be focused on, people can be informed of what is important and why (key species, key habitats, etc.) and how they may be safeguarded. People need to be informed of potential or actual threats and what results could be, as well as how threats might be neutralized. Information is key – both to local people and from them, and to and from all other stakeholders. Trust is important. Without it, evidence is likely to be disregarded in favor of traditional biases and beliefs. Some of these traditional beliefs might be true, but some of which could be terribly wrong and inappropriate.

For example, overfishing or overuse of resources which might have been acceptable in the context of a much reduced population with less frequent use technology half a century ago, but which are not longer suitable although there may be longstanding support for such actions. Care needs to be taken in putting forward new approaches so that they can gain local support. This requires a clear understanding of what is being proposed, why it is being proposed, and how it will work. All of this is education after a fashion.

Above all, stakeholders must sort out the really key issues, problems, and processes and concentrate on these without getting sidetracked by almost irrelevant but highly publicized media issues. For example, it is easy to get worked up about a hotel keeping its lights on on a beach at night where turtles are hatching and might get confused, although a more serious issue might be a harbor extension for local fishermen which could result in changed erosion patterns and total disappearance of the beach at issue.

TIES: Please share case studies and examples that you find particularly interesting and are reflective of the changes occurring in island tourism today.

Prof. Butler: Probably cruise tourism, as this is bringing large numbers of tourists to islands that had not previously experience such numbers ever before. In some cases this seems an easy option; few infrastructure facilities need to be provided, and boats can anchor off shore and transport visitors to the location. Pressures can be very high for very short periods of time with limited returns in terms of employment, expenditure, and lasting benefits, and every port of call is vulnerable because they have little or no role in decision making about whether the cruise ship should return another year or another voyage. This is not to say that cruise tourism is a bad thing, but I think it is symptomatic of a number of issues including vulnerability, lack of control, concentration of pressure and impacts, intensity of effects, minimal per capita expenditure, and a false impression of visitor numbers being maintained.

Although not specifically a tourist issue, increasing numbers of islands are becoming the focus of development (oil and gas, defense etc.). This has implications for tourism by increasing the visibility of islands through reference in the media, and by provision of infrastructure. For example, the Falkland Islands are much easier to visit now, following the post 1980 increased defense presence there. Similarly, the Shetland Islands have benefited enormously from oil infrastructure developments in terms of access and communication improvements, which have had a positive impact on tourism development.

Interview conducted by Lindsay Milich, July 2011

Prof Richard ButlerProfessor Richard Butler was educated at Nottingham University and the University of Glasgow (PhD Geography 1973), and spent thirty years at the University of Western Ontario in Canada as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Geography, and then the University of Surrey, where he was Professor of Tourism from 1997 to 2005. He is currently Emeritus Professor of International Tourism in the Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He has published a large number of journal articles, fourteen books on tourism and many chapters in other books. His fields of interest are the development process of tourist destinations the impacts of tourism, carrying capacity and sustainability, and tourism in remote areas and islands.

Related Articles

Conservation Tourism: Interview with Ralf Buckley
Conservation Tourism, written by Professor Ralf Buckley and his colleagues at the International Centre for Ecotourism Research in Griffith University, Australia, features 100 international case studies from private marine reserves to bird watching lodges, and covers key topics including sources of capital and operational funding, corporate and organizational structure, marketing strategies, primary conservation outcomes and spin-off effects, links to public protected areas, future plans and global trends.

Volunteer Tourism: Interview with Dr. Stephen Wearing
Volunteer Tourism: Seeking Experiences that Make a Difference by Dr. Wearing, Senior Lecturer, University of Technology, and Dr Lyons, University of Newcastle, will be published by CABI in 2012. Concentrating on the experience of the volunteer tourist and the host community, this new edition builds on the view of volunteer tourism as a positive and sustainable form of tourism to examine a broader spectrum of behaviors and experiences.

Coastal Tourism: Interview with Dr. Andrew Jones
The symbiotic relationship between coastal tourism and amenable climates has become a paradox with climate change now threatening the very nature of tourism that it has so successfully encouraged in the past. The U.S. coastline along the Gulf of Mexico (i.e. Louisiana and Florida) represents a good example of this ongoing dynamic relationship. Similarly, many of the island archipelagos of South and South East Asia demonstrate vulnerabilities in this context.

GSTC: Spearheading Efforts to Make Tourism More Sustainable

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is a multi-stakeholder global initiative dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism around the world. The GSTC works to expand understanding of and access to sustainable tourism practices; helps identify and generate markets for sustainable tourism; educates about and advocates for a set of universal principles, as defined by the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The GSTC Criteria, a set of voluntary principles that provide a framework for the sustainability of tourism businesses across the globe, is the cornerstone of our initiative.

Momentum around this movement is growing. The GSTC is currently active in all UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) regions – Africa, the Americas, Middle East, and East Asia and the Pacific, with countries like Egypt, Costa Rica and India, and others progressing forward. Please see the GSTC website for more information on members and partners around the world.

The GSTC offers a great opportunity for tourism businesses and organizations to get involved as members, and to be part of the global movement towards sustainable tourism. TIES joined the GSTC in September 2010 to contribute to a vision that encourages and stimulates the travel and tourism sector worldwide toward more sustainable tourism operations. The GSTC’s work to position the tourism sector as a contributor to conservation and poverty alleviation is in line with TIES mission, and I believe that these efforts are changing the way in which we think about tourism. Ecotourism, in part, has been an impetus for creating a more sustainable tourism industry – and we are very encouraged about the potential for the GSTC to build these efforts for all tourism.

GSTC CSR Session

GSTC Executive Director, Erika Harms, addresses the ITB-Berlin audience, Corporate Social Responsibility Day (March 2011)

Opportunities for Tourism Stakeholders
We are all aware of the issues our industry and planet face: from climate change to resource depletion; increasing poverty to unstable political climates; and government regulation to raising consumer awareness of sustainability issues. As an industry we depend on consumer demand and stable environments to succeed. Such large issues cannot be solved by our industry alone. However, we can take positive steps toward a solution.

The GSTC is a place where tourism stakeholders can support action on sustainability issues, extend their networks to work with other like-minded companies and organizations, and enjoy a competitive advantage over those who are slower to come around. The GSTC is working on many projects that will be launched in 2011, including: GSTC Accreditation, GSTC Market Access programs, development of education and online training materials and revision of the current GSTC criteria. I encourage you to join the GSTC and help shape the outcomes of these projects.

The GSTC is the first multi-stakeholder, truly global initiative operating in all regions of the world. It is an exciting time to be at the GSTC and I hope you will take a moment to visit the website, learn more about the organization and become a member.