Field Report – Mentawais

Right at this moment, the future of the world’s most perfect waves hang in the balance.

Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands have reached surf tourism saturation. With the 2012 season over, this year witnessed crowds in excess of 150 surfers clustered around a single break threatening the viability of long standing businesses. Witness this mid-season tweet from Kelly Slater:
As people who have invested more than a decade of their lives – and not just their own life savings, but the life savings of many of their family and friends as well – attempted to sure up their positions, ugly confrontations between charter boats and Mentawai villagers were captured on video, uploaded to the Internet, and viewed around the world. In the aftermath, the Mentawai government has decided to act. This is not the first time Mentawai surf tourism has been the center of controversy, but this time the government means business.


Dr. Jess

Attempts at surf tourism legislation in the Mentawais go back to the Paul King (jailed former surf travel king pin and founder of the Surf Travel Co) vs Rick Cameron (much maligned former dark lord of Mentawai surf tourism) days of yore. Beginning with the West Sumatran Provincial government in September 1996 when the governor issued decree No SK-556-652-1996, which attempted to establish five surf zones throughout the Mentawais to be managed by Rick Cameron’s Great Breaks International (GBI) and its Indonesian partners Mentawai Wisata Bahari (MWB). The decree included the collection of a $5 per surfer, per day, Mentawai Archipelago Visitor Registration Approval (MARVIP) tax. This never really got off the ground and set the tone for the Mentawai charter fleet strategy to defeat all attempts to regulate them with overwhelming non-compliance. There were reports in 1997 of cruising yachts being hassled by Rick Cameron/MWB commanded navy yachts asking them to leave the Mentawai surfing zones. In 1999, a series of court cases (essentially driven by Paul King) saw the decree revoked by a new governor beginning in January 1999. The revocation was rescinded in June, then the rescinding order was appealed, overruled, and finally the original revocation was allowed to stand in December.



GBI/MWB lodged an appeal in the supreme court in 2000, but then withdrew it after virtually identical legislation/licensing was granted under the regency (kabupaten) level government of the newly created Mentawai regency (formerly it was part of Padang-Pariaman kabupaten). Also, in light of recently passed regional autonomy laws in Indonesia which allows regencies more autonomy in their interpretation of central government policy. The new Zone Agreement Permits (ZAP) again called for zones to be managed, capacity capped, and a $5 per surfer, per day tax. Again the industry resisted and prevailed by overwhelming non-compliance.

In 2003, the Mentawai regency level of government made a second attempt to legislate and again, ‘allegedly’ with significant input from Rick Cameron, came out with regulation (perdah) 16.

Regulation 16: Main Issues for Surfing Tourism Operations:

  • The head of the Mentawai regency, the Bupati, is ‘guarantor of all tourism matters in the Mentawai Islands’.
  • Regulation 16 initially permits only five maritime tourism companies to operate in the Mentawais for the first five years pending review. Limitation to five companies is ‘to ensure sustainable techniques are employed in operating maritime tourism’.
  • In order to qualify for a license, a business: must own at least a representative office in the regency; own a location to run a business; have undertaken an environmental impact statement for their proposal; have at least 2 and no more than 6 passenger vessels taking a maximum of 50 guests; have submitted plans for development and management of tourism business in the Mentawai.
  • License is valid for up to 15 years and can be renewed; license may be cancelled if companies do not commence tourism activities within 12 months.
  • Operators working under existing licenses have six months to fulfill licensing requirements under Regulation 16.
  • A license to build one or more resorts is contingent upon holding a company license, proof of ownership or rental agreement of resort site and a proposal outlining resort operation, management structure, and planned future developments.
  • Resorts are to be granted ‘support territories’ which the regency government guarantees will ‘not be used by a person or any company, except the tourism company that owns the license to carry out exclusive operations in that support territory’. Capacity of more than 25 guests receives a support territory radius of 1000m from resort site, less than 25 are given 750m radius. Companies permitted to build on resort support territory will have a 250m radius support territory of their own.
  • Tourism companies are obliged to preserve the natural environment and not permitted to damage protected forest or slash surrounding mangrove forest or use materials from the surrounding area to build resort infrastructure.
  • Tourists are obliged to stay at a licensed hotel or charter vessel and should not engage in activities other than tourism.
  • Tourists must respect the values of the citizens and must respect the culture of residents.
  • All tourist activities are obliged to operate in a manner that preserves the local environment.
  • Regional government will allow the construction and management of a marina.
  • Locally and foreign owned charter boats must operate under the license of a tourism company issued by Mentawai regency government and may only operate in a resort support territory if a cooperation agreement has been entered into with resort owners.
  • Licensed tourism companies must cooperate with local administrators in the collection of a tax upon tourists.

(Source: Regency of Mentawai Islands Verdict No. 35, 2003 Tourism Retribution and Attractions; Regional Regulations of Mentawai Islands No. 16 2002)

This was the basis for the Macaronis Resort mooring management plan at the center of the current controversy – i.e. the support territories. Regardless, the Macaronis resort pushed ahead with a plan to manage the surf at Macaronis by installing two moorings at the surf break. The idea was that in order to surf Macaronis boats needed to be on a mooring. Boats not on a mooring were not welcome to surf. Based on Perdah 16’s support territories, this appeared to be within the law.


Coral meets anchor carnage.

It appears to be fatally flawed under national Indonesian law by its stipulation for only five management companies, which could be perceived as monopolistic/oligopolistic. Again, defeat through non-compliance ruled the day (until the Macaronis resort engaged the Silabu village authorities to manage the moorings plan after the boat owners association refused, well more realistically, just didn’t respond). The plan was also weakened by some of the operators that bought into the plan setting themselves up as the ‘Big 5’ (they actually called themselves that), one or two of whom ALLEGEDLY did not meet requirements for infrastructure in the islands to be license holders, but ALLEGEDLY saw this as an opportunity to leverage funds from surf charter boats who were required under the legislation to be licensed under one of the five sanctioned marine tourism companies. In the absence of government guidelines. percentages of profit and flat fees for registration under a license holder were ALLEGEDLY thrown around, understandably failing to impress the surf charter businesses. The owner of one charter business allegedly calculated that the contribution his company was being asked to pay was $250 000, money that he made it publicly clear he would much rather spend fighting the Big 5 in court.

Regardless, the Macaronis Resort pushed ahead with its mooring system. This is from the Macaronis website and details how it came into being and addresses some of the boat owners’ concerns.

So it now appear that all this has been put on the backburner as the government attempts to develop new regulations that it hopes will quell the rising tide of discontent among local communities and its tourism operators. The Center for Surf Research published a Facebook post in August that broke the news of an exclusive access model being put forward by the Mentawai government based on a Diamond, Gold, Silver zone allocation to different breaks.

Exclusive Surf Zones Planned for the Mentawais

In an article in the Indonesian media website Puailiggoubat, translated for the Center for Surf Research by Julianus Legeu, head of Mentawai Tourism Desti Seminora announced on Friday that the Mentawai government is refining a plan to develop three types of zones in the Mentawais based on an “Diamond, Gold and Silver” zone model for exclusive access, common access, and mass access. Zones are to be determined based on wave quality, presumably the best waves will be subject to exclusive access. How exclusivity is to be determined and awarded, and how this will impact on the resort and charter boat sectors was not revealed. This news of impending radical change comes midway through a season that has seen Kelly Slater tweet that we have ruined the Mentawais with excessive crowds. Perhaps this can bring the magic back to the Mentawais?

Since then I’ve been working directly with a group of surf tourism industry leaders on developing a rough carrying capacity for the islands. This brief report based on this work places the peak season carrying capacity of the islands at 498. I’m worried that this figure is based on good or very good surfing conditions and does not allow for the majority of days which are not that good (by Mentawai standards) and in which boats tend to cluster around a few breaks.


CSR Director with Mentawai Islands shamen

I have also been in touch directly with Desti Seminora, head of tourism in the Mentawais and she has asked my opinion on a number of matters relating to the regulations she and her team are preparing. I first met Desti while on the Quiksilver Foundation’s Get on Board trip in March 2012, she asked me at the time if the Center for Surf Research could assign someone to work in the Mentawai Tourism Department to help develop the regulations. I would have dearly loved to do just that, but unfortunately we receive no state funding and are totally reliant on philanthropic donations, we just don’t have enough funds to be able to do it. I believe we will in the years to come but we just can’t at the moment – it’s a real shame.

csr-quiksilver-research trip-indonesia-2012

CSR Quiksilver Research trip to Indonesia 2012

I think the important issue is that the people of the Mentawai Islands need social and economic development – insert the usual litany of poverty related health issues from the SurfAid annual report, its still pretty dire out there. They don’t have much in the way of resources that can be easily and sustainably transformed into capital. They have probably the world’s best and most consistent surf fields. How best can these be leveraged to drive social and economic development for the local people? This question seems to get pushed to the bottom of the pile. The foreign tourism industry guys are very heavily invested, their livelihoods are on the line, most have gambled everything they own and in some cases the bulk of their adult lives on the dream of making a living off of these waves while being able to surf them as much as possible themselves. Some are now connected to the area by marriage. Their depth of passion in their respective fights to preserve their slice of the Mentawai surf tourism pie is a function of their personal/financial stake and should be respected. The whole industry is now in jeopardy because the resource and the industry has not been managed. I’ve been saying for years, more than a decade, that left to itself, market forces will see surf tourism devolve into a high-volume low-yield model that will damage the environment, social structures, culture and lead to businesses with paper thin margins and frustrated operators and dissatisfied customers. This is not a new notion. This is backed by theoretical economics dating back to the 1960s. The following is cut and pasted from a journal article I am in the throes of submitting to the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

“Common pool resources require some form of regulation and management or, as Hardin (1968) pointed out, human nature dictates that they are destined for tragedy. Mancur Olson is his seminal work on the logic of collective action makes the case in a way that is easily transposed into the context of surf tourism: “unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their own common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” (Olson 1965: p2. Emphasis Original).”

Sustainable surf tourism requires management. Like Humpty Dumpty and his incident with gravity, once too many people are engaged in a surf tourism industry, it is virtually impossible to back track – without an enforced management plan it is impossible. In the Mentawais, existing businesses probably do need to be grandfathered into the coming regulations. I wouldn’t want to to tell folks who put their heart and soul into developing Mentawai surf tourism businesses to pack up and leave, so the question becomes one of how do we stop any further growth in the surf tourism industry (its time to go after other markets, plenty of room to grow the Mentawai tourism industry but the surf resources are pretty much tapped out for a quality surf tourism experience to continue)? The islands are stunning, this will not be too hard to try and salvage a quality surf tourist experience given those numbers.

Interesting times lie ahead as the Mentawai government processes the carrying capacity devised by the industry and develops a new set of regulations for the islands. The Center for Surf Research is happy to be a part of this process and remains at the disposal of the Mentawai government to provide input and feedback on developing regulations.


CSR Research vessel 2011

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