Ever since Petacalco, a Mexican mainland secret spot that was arguably the first of its ilk to be "outed" by a surf magazine, Mexico has been a test case for the benefits of surf tourism and the follies of over-exposure and development.
Puerto Escondido, for example, was once a tiny coffee port. Today the "Mexican Pipeline" resides at the shore of one of its nation's fastest growing cities. Cabo San Lucas likewise, is quickly merging with San Jose del Cabo. Scorpion Bay, also famously exposed by a magazine feature, has been host to a long-simmering land squable with Americans on both sides.
This doozie inspired the arson of a few visitors' vehicles, the campground latrine, and the closure of the camp restaurant -- a business that supported a number of locals. In recent times, the ranch surrounding Salsipuedes was bought up and slated for a massive community development. Oaxaca's Barra de la Cruz was put instantly on the map by the Rip Curl Search event in 2006 and its community's resolve severely tested by the following influx of visitors.
Steve Pezman, surf magazine veteran and founder of The Surfer's Journal's put it plainly, "Publication puts breaks at risk."
For the better part of the last decade however, an interesting phenomenon had been occurring in and around Salina Cruz. A low-impact form of surf tourism with local roots had been hosting the world's best surfers -- garnering cover photos and video footage. The prices were a bit stiff by Mexican standards, but the experience was intimate. To keep it that way there had been an implicit editorial agreement not to name the spots in specific, or Salina Cruz in general. Barra had been too close an example of a pristine break blown-out within a season or two of its mass-introduction.
Following the Rip Curl event however, surf-oriented travel agencies brought something unmediated to the process. Companies like Waterways Surf Adventures and Wavehunters became increasingly aggressive in naming the area in advertisements, all but promising empty or exclusive lineups. By 2009, there were more than enough digital bread crumbs on the net.
But in its recent November 2011 issue, Surfing magazine connected all of the dots in a piece titled "The Life and Times of Salina Cruz: A Pointbreak Sensation." It read as a fictional interview with Salina Cruz itself, as if it were not an industrial port town but a teen starlet akin to Selena Gomez. A caption announced, "From obscurity to headliner in record time. This is the exclusive tell-all." The odd text did a number of things. It connected all of the biggest names in surfing to spots that had formerly gone unidentified. It connected all of those spots to Salina Cruz. But then, to the dismay of locals, it portrayed the area as a tramp. The fictional female fawned over Damien Fahrenfort -- "[He] knows how to use his rail. I'd work with Damien anytime." When asked if she has groupies, Salina Cruz responded, "it's not hard to find that sort of attention, if you're after it."
Ironically, considering the symposium on "sustainable surf travel" held at SDSU last week, the debate concerning the merits or ills of exposure is not an academic one. It's being played out in real-time. In an email dated September 22, Cesar Ramirez -- a local surfer and a cornerstone of the surf tour business in Salina Cruz -- asked flatly, "What was the guy who wrote the article thinking?"
The email went on to explain the delicate relationship forged by local surfers, businesses, tour guides, and the foreign surfers they hosted. It posited the rhetorical question of why the name of Salina Cruz hadn't been spilled in such dramatic fashion before then. "Maybe for respect or friendship," Ramirez answered. "All was good until today. Somebody with no balls to write his [own] name wrote the s----iest article a surfer can write ... Did it without respect and in the lowest form of professional ethics."
The interesting aspect of this email, however, was that it carried weight:
"I hearby advise everyone that there has been a meeting between the local surfers in Salina Cruz including all the surf camps and as a result to this disgusting article ... as of now, for 2 years foreign photographers and videographers are not welcome in Salina Cruz, doesn't matter what surf team or what magazine they work for."
Of the enforcement tools listed, the first was a legal one: an inspection of a photographer's Mexican work visa -- something few, if any, surf photographers obtain. The second tool was a bit more mercurial, depending on, "if we are in a good mood."
Cesar Ramirez didn't respond to an email inquiry. But a surf guide at the Las Palmeras resort and a long-time pro surfer from Santa Cruz, Calif., Josh Mulcoy did. He said he wasn't present at the meeting in Salina Cruz but was certain of the community's solidarity. "I really think with what the Rip Curl contest did to Barra, everyone involved in Salina Cruz is scared to see that happen again. Having the photo ban is a way to help cool it down a bit. When they held the meeting, everyone came up with the idea [together]. So, if that is what they want, they will make it happen."
Surfing magazine editor Travis Ferre responded to inquiries concerning the issue, but chose not to make a comment.
But this was not an A-to-B conversation. Cesar Ramirez' email announcing the ban was sent to a wide variety of surf industry professionals -- pro surfers, magazine editors, marketing department honchos, etc. -- all with some connection to Salina Cruz. One of these chose to remain anonymous but wrote, "Salina Cruz [was] touted in ads and on numerous camp websites. It's not even close to being a secret. And -- aside from the [Surfing staff] naming it -- they were merely putting an amusing spin on what's become the poor man's (or at least the semi-poor man's) Mentawais. Sometimes, it's a seemingly harmless article like this that lights the fuse of something that's been simmering for a while."
Mulcoy wrote that, "Some don't understand why people in Salina Cruz are mad about [the article]. As it was, locals were making a living and doing fine, but they didn't want it to turn into a Barra. Everything changes and we all know that, but it's just too much all at once. One thing many don't realize is that this was a very dangerous region. If people were to show up with cameras and surfboards there was a good chance they would get robbed. David [Ramirez] and Cesar have made it a safe, welcoming place to visit. It has been a very slow change, and it all comes down them. Surfing magazine should have run it by one of them first."
Tourism department officials in Mexico have made it clear that surf tourism is small potatoes. Either surfers can prove that sustainable surf tourism is a healthy benefit to local communities, or they will build a new Ixtapa on the same spot.
In a separate conversation, big-wave photographer and former Surfer mag photo editor Jason Murray shared a perspective learned through exploration and discovery, but partly due to his experience with the Northern Baja break known as Harry's that was killed by an LNG plant. "I always try to consider the response to the article I publish if I were to take that article back to the place where I collected the photos. Will the people on the ground be stoked? Or will they feel burned."