An interview with Jess Ponting, of STOKE Certified & the Centre for Surf Research
Understanding the socio-cultural and environmental impacts of travelling can be tough. It’s people like Jess Ponting who are at the forefront of creating a sustainable tourism standard. Jess mixes his worldly experience of travelling to isolated places with a highly scientific background, studying the complex and fragile world of tourism. With a PhD in sustainable surf tourism management, Jess is the Co-Founder of STOKE Certified and the Director of the Centre for Surf Research. We had a chat about his fascinating background and discussed his current projects.
Erik Sumarkho: In light of your achievements, we would love to know where it all began. What were you like as a kid and where did you grow up?
Jess Ponting: Hmmm, as a kid I was mad about surfing from an early age, I used to also sail competitively on the Manning River. I was crazy into music. First piano, then saxophone, then guitar… I was in some pretty terrible but really fun highschool bands. I never wanted to be just a face in the crowd, maybe speaking to some deeper issues of personal identity. This played out in an array of odd haircuts!
I grew up on the mid-north coast of NSW, an area called Rainbow Flat, with my home breaks Diamond Beach and Blackhead. We would migrate between Manning Point in the north, through Old Bar, Saltwater, Tuncurry, Forster, Boomerang through to Selito, Seal Rocks and Treachery in the south on a pretty regular basis. We had waves everywhere! Empty beaches, where we usually had to find people to surf with, though we didn’t know it at the time – it was pretty sweet.
ES: As someone who is forever on the move, what can’t you travel without?
JP: A surfboard. I’ve lugged boards through some unlikely places on the off chance of a single session somewhere along the line. For example, last month I was working at the United Nation’s International Trade Centre, on a post-ebola tourism export strategy in Liberia, West Africa. I lugged a board through New York, Belgium and Sierra Leone on the way there… for one surf session! The surf was so good, I abandoned the consulting team only to rejoin them back in the capital, Monrovia the next day. Liberia is holding. Big time.
“…ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. COCONUTS WERE BEING LOBBED SKYHIGH TO RAIN DOWN ONTO THE MARKET-GOERS. BEATINGS WITH LENGTHS OF SUGAR CANE WERE GOING ON, PAWPAWS BECAME EXPLODING GRENADES AND EVEN BUNDLES OF LEAFY GREEN WERE BEING LAUNCHED AT ENEMIES.” – JESS PONTING
ES: What’s the weirdest travel story you could share?
JP: Oh man, there are so many. Maybe the time I was in Papua New Guinea around 1997, with a mate from high school. I’d just finished a year long stint as a community development worker in a remote village in the interior of PNG. This, followed by a season-long trip through the east Indonesian archipelago from Bali through Sumbawa, Sumba, and Timor before finally arriving back in PNG. This time to surf, rather than work. We were in Wewak, which is generally a pretty safe town, but it can get loose on occasion. One day, we saw the world’s gnarliest food fight.
It started in the town market when someone stole something from a stall. The stall owner lobbed a shelled, dry coconut, with the accuracy only a subsistence hunter can muster, 40 feet across a market to smash into the back of the offender’s head. Dropping him instantly, his bloodied head fell right onto my mate Cameron’s foot. The offender’s friends saw this go down and all hell broke out. Coconuts were being lobbed from high ground to rain down onto the market-goers. Beatings with lengths of sugar cane were going on, pawpaws became exploding grenades and even bundles of leafy green were being launched at enemies. Classic trip.
“IF A PROPERTY IS STOKE CERTIFIED AT THE SUSTAINABILITY LEVEL YOU CAN RELAX KNOWING THAT IT IS DOING A BANG-UP JOB OF PROTECTING THE LOCAL ENVIRONMENT, RESPECTING LOCAL CULTURES, AND PROVIDING REAL ECONOMIC BENEFIT FOR SURROUNDING COMMUNITIES.” – JESS PONTING
ES: Could the sustainable surf tourism industry infiltrate other types of tourism?
JP: Surf tourism can definitely be a leader in a succession of tourism types. Surfers will travel to remote areas with no tourism services if the waves are good and uncrowded. This makes the barriers of entry into the tourism business for local entrepreneurs as low as they are ever likely to be. Surfers come, economies of scale develop, more tourists come, tourism infrastructure and services improve, tourism base expands, complimentary businesses emerge and prosper.
Of course it can always go very badly as well. What is really needed is planning and for local people to be involved in the industry at all levels – In collaboration with Dr Danny O’Brien at Bond University I’ve developed what is called the Framework Analysis for Sustainable Surf Tourism that lays out 5 principles for sustainable surf tourism policy, particularly in less developed country settings. This has been a helpful tool for researchers assessing the sustainability of surf tourism policy in places like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia, the Maldives, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
ES: With your experience, what is one key action organisations can take to drastically increase their overall sustainability?
JP: Develop and operationalise a sustainability management system. Done well, this will impact every facet of any organisation and make sure that sustainability is a key factor in all decisions being made at every level.
Its not always apparent how this might be achieved or why its important from the demand side, that’s why in collaboration with Carl Kish, we created STOKE Certified – a systematic and comprehensive system for implementing and measuring surf tourism.
We assess business sustainability across 143 metrics and more than 300 compliance indicators. If a property is STOKE Certified at the Sustainable level you can relax knowing that it is doing a bang up job of protecting the local environment, respecting local cultures, and providing real economic benefit for surrounding communities. We are working on destination level STOKE certifications where all the tourism businesses in an area are compliant with the standard. Ultimately, we wont be talking about it because that will be the global standard. We sincerely hope that one day STOKE Certified will become irrelevant.
Above: Matanivusi, the first STOKE Certified surf resort
ES: Who is leading sustainable tourism?
JP: In terms of sustainable surf tourism, there are all kinds of great examples. In Papua New Guinea surf tourism is planned and controlled by the surfing Association of Papua New Guinea. Local communities are explicitly involved in the process and benefit directly from it. The way the Tavarua Resort in Fiji has worked with its communities for over 30 years, Matanivusi Resort works on incorporating renewables.
Additionally, Wavepark Mentawai, its efforts in reef conservation and local employment, Kwepuna Retreat in Liberia, West Africa and its work to build capacity amongst local youth and defibrillate Liberia’s tourism industry back to life after ebola, (which effectively shut the country down for two years). The STOKE Certified member profiles have loads of examples of best practice surf tourism operations.
“THE SURF EXPLORERS OF THE PAST WHO JUST WENT. NOT ALL OF THEM. SOME OF THEM WENT AND THEN EXPLOITED BEAUTIFUL PLACES LIKE FERVENT NEO-COLONIALISTS.” – JESS PONTING
ES: Who is your unsung hero?
JP: The surf explorers of the past who just went. Not all of them. Some of them went and then exploited beautiful places like fervent neo-colonialists. Others went and worked with local communities to build futures together in sustainable ways.
You can see these as the 20 year, 30 year veteran surf tourism operators, still maintaining great relationships with the local communities who have risen with them, and whose surrounding environments are protected and better off as a results of them being there.
ES: So, where are you headed next? What’s the ultimate goal?
JP: Physically, probably San Juanico in Baja California Sur to work with STOKE Certified Benchmarked Property, The Scorpion Bay Hotel. Metaphorically, surf parks. They are about to be a big thing. I co-founded the Surf Park Summit in 2013, seeing this on the horizon. Surf Park Summit 2 is in Orlando, Sept 7th. With surfing coming into 2020 Olympics, Slater’s wave pool, amongst others, it’s going to manifest itself into a ‘thing’, in fact a big thing.
Sustainability is going to be a big factor in this industry or it will not be viable or appreciated by the communities they land in. I want to be a part of sharing the stoke of surfing, making sure that as surfers our travels, wanderings and developments are having a positive impact on the places and people we encounter.