Tina Nguyen is a long-time surfer and committed driver of sustainability who has witnessed first-hand meaningful impacts resulting from the projects she’s led. She completed her master’s degree in South Africa where she focused her research on sustainable surfing events, comparing the sustainability practices at major pro surfing events in Jeffreys Bay and on the North Shore, Hawaii. With a particular curiosity about what sustainability means for different people in different places, she enjoys working at the intersection of business and sustainability to create tangible benefits for people and the environment.
This paper presents the preliminary findings of an exploratory research project aimed to build a foundational understanding of the local surfing economy in Cape Town, South Africa. Grounded in Porter’s Cluster Theory, this study explores the current composition and dynamics of Cape Town’s local surfing sports cluster, factors that led to its emergence, a typology of its members, and ascertains current interdependencies amongst the members. In line with this, the study examines the many multi-scalar challenges the cluster faces in order to remain viable in the longer term. Through a qualitative case study approach, data were collected via 14 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders actively involved in Cape Town’s surf industry during 2018. Findings identified a well-established cluster of surf-related firms located in the suburb of Muizenberg with links to smaller agglomerations of surf-related businesses throughout the surrounding area. The combination of factors leading to the emergence of a cluster at this specific location are: wave quality appealing to various skill levels, accessibility by train, centralized location of the surf-break, a surfing heritage, and status as a tourist destination. It was found that 10 different types of firms make up the cluster and that strong interdependencies amongst selected firms are apparent, yet a fragmented industry atmosphere more aptly depicts the current overall state of the cluster. The challenges of a controversial political and economic climate, exorbitant rental, market size, international competition, low barriers to entry, worker skills and retention – exacerbated by South Africa’s high exchange rate – threaten firms’ already slim margins. As Cape Town’s surfing cluster sits at difficult crossroads, more in-depth research is needed to gain a greater understanding of the dynamics and working of the surfing cluster so stakeholders can be better informed to make decisions that secure the sustainability of the industry in the Cape.