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Surfers ride the waves in rising numbers

By Zhao Ruinan in Sanya, Hainan, and Chen Bowen in Haikou | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-31


Surfers enjoy the waves in Sanya, Hainan province.

White-collar workers in cities have numerous ways to take a break from the relentless grind of their jobs and daily life.

They include going for a run along the streets, settling down with a bucket of popcorn to watch the latest blockbuster movie or television series, visiting a spa in the suburbs, or spending an evening playing mahjong with friends.

But for 32-year-old Zhong Sizhe, riding the waves on a surfboard is her go-to method to shake off work-induced stress.

"Surfing gives you a sense of freedom. In the office, you are always looking at your smartphone, so your mind is constantly occupied, but when you take a surfboard to the ocean, you can forget about everything," Zhong said.

An auditor in Changsha, Hunan province, Zhong traveled to Sanya, Hainan province, in November for a two-month business project.

Although Sanya, an international tourist city at the southern tip of Hainan Island, boasts a wealth of tropical scenery, Zhong spent almost every weekend playing mahjong or poker, which left her feeling bored.

After work, Zhong longed to do something new and inspiring, so she decided to try her hand at surfing.

"My friends could not believe that I never ventured outside the hotel during weekends, or visited the beach in Sanya," she said.

Surfing, a relatively unknown sport in China, has gained popularity on social media platforms in the past two years, particularly among young people.

Zhong, who took a trial lesson at a surfing club in Houhai village, Hainan — regarded as one of the best surfing locations in China — was immediately hooked on the sport.

Such lessons are a popular way for clubs in Sanya to attract tourists. For just 200 yuan ($27.90), participants receive one-on-one surfing instruction, making this an affordable and accessible option for those who want to take up the pursuit.

Despite the challenges posed by surfing, Zhong quickly mastered the key moves. "It was an amazing feeling — I imagine it's just like flying on a sword," she said.

Zhong is just one of many Chinese who have taken up surfing in recent years.

Yang Xingye, 29, owner of the Joyful Surfing Club, where Zhong learned to surf, said the sport has gained numerous followers, partly due to the promotional efforts of surfers and surfing clubs during the past decade.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic also played a role.

"As outdoor activities became more popular during the pandemic, many people took to the beaches and started surfing. People are also becoming less focused on work and are looking for alternative ways to enjoy life," Yang said.

Hawaiian origins

Due to its origins in Hawaii, where it was a recreational activity for the islands' royalty, surfing has been dubbed the sport of kings.

A surfer catches a wave just as it is cresting, then rides along the wave's "face" as it breaks toward the beach.

There are between 17 million and 35 million surfers worldwide, data from the International Surfing Association, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, and Surfing Australia show.

In China, tourist spending has risen in cities where surfing is thriving. For example, Wanning, Hainan, witnessed a 46.46 rise in such spending in the first half of 2022. In Huizhou, Guangdong province, the tourism industry saw growth of 190 percent, due in large part to the increased popularity of surfing.

Yang said: "Surfing is about freedom and happiness, which is what the younger generation is looking for. This is why it has become so popular among the youth of today."

A resident of Houhai village, Hainan, Yang launched his surfing club in 2019, but it only started to make a profit the following year after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, Hubei province. During that time, when international travel faced many obstacles, domestic tourists flocked to Hainan.

After the pandemic, Houhai and Wanning gradually became popular destinations that were frequently searched online. As of Jan 21 on the Xiaohongshu lifestyle sharing platform, more than 1.51 million searches had been made for "surfing" and over 520,000 for "Houhai".

Jile Surfing Club, established in 2014, was one of the first formal surfing clubs in Houhai. The owner, Wu Zhu, arrived in Sanya the previous year to relax and learn surfing after experiencing problems with his foreign trade clothing business. He decided to stay.

"When I first arrived in Houhai, it was dark. I looked out the cab window and wondered where I had come to, as the dirt-covered roads were so messy. I even began thinking that the taxi driver had brought me to the wrong place. But when I walked around and suddenly saw the sea, I was hooked, as the view was so beautiful," Wu said.

Houhai has a geographical advantage for surfing, as the bay forms almost a perfect semicircle, allowing waves to break on the shore from a number of directions. Waves of varying sizes and levels of difficulty form in different locations, making them suitable for novices and advanced surfers.

The village is also situated between Sanya and Wanning. In summer, at Dadonghai Bay, Sanya, the waves come mainly from the south, while in winter, they come mainly from the north at Wanning. Wu said Houhai's location means that waves can be caught by surfers almost all year round.

In their overall planning for 2011-2020, the authorities in Sanya designated Haitang district, in which Houhai is situated, as the location for hot springs, tropical agriculture, coastal tourism, and marine research.

These plans resulted in entrepreneurs such as Wu and Yang bringing new business formats to Sanya.

In summer 2016, a national surfing academy was established at Riyuewan Bay, Wanning, which boasts a large beach with excellent surf north of Houhai to train young surfers. The academy's goal is to coach a new generation of surfers to win medals for China in international competitions.

Wu said: "At first, my business was just a homestay, but as more people came to the area, we established a dedicated surfing club. The business model for such a club is quite simple — to focus on instruction, and for coaches to earn an income. Peripheral products, such as surfboards and sunscreen, are also sold."

Wu added that promoting surfing as a new way for tourists to see more of the world is attracting a rising number of young people.

In addition to Wanning and Sanya, cities such as Zhangzhou, Fujian province, and Huizhou, Guangdong province, among others, are fast becoming destinations for surfing enthusiasts due to their locations and prevailing winds.

The rise in urban travel consumption on the SMZDM e-commerce platform directly reflects the popularity of surfing.

In the first half of 2022, popular surfing cities such as Wanning, Zhangzhou, Sanya, and Huizhou saw significant growth in such consumption. Total transaction values rose by 46.46 percent and 99.71 percent, respectively, in Wanning and Zhangzhou, while in Sanya and Huizhou, they rose by 130.52 percent and 195.15 percent, respectively.

The Global Surfing Industry report released by the ReportLinker platform in May 2022 stated that amid the COVID-19 crisis the global surfing market was estimated at $4 billion that year, and is projected to reach $4.8 billion by 2027.

Liu Hongtao, who is in charge of the water sports industry at SMZDM, said that in recent years, with government support and more surfing competitions held worldwide, enthusiasm for the sport has increased.

Olympic sport

In 2020, the International Olympic Committee decided to include surfing as an event for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Due to the pandemic, the Games were staged in August 2021.

Liu said surfing in China is still in its early stages, whether in terms of the number of participants or scale of the industry's development. He also believes that surfing combines the attributes of sports, culture and industry.

As a sport, it has become popular in many Chinese coastal cities, with training institutions established in locations such as Sanya and Wanning, which also host international surfing competitions. As a cultural symbol, the freedom and adventure represented by surfing have quickly attracted the younger generation, Liu said.

As an industry, the surfing consumer market still faces problems such as a lack of brands and channels, and low participation rates. However, there is still significant development potential for the sport in China, Liu added.

For her second surfing lesson, Zhong, from Changsha, brought along a colleague, who spent an hour mastering the way to stand up on the board.

"I usually go running, which is relatively simple, but surfing gives you a greater sense of achievement, as it's a sport that requires balance and relies on the forces of nature," Zhong said.

Hoping to return to Hainan, she has already planned her annual leave for this year.

"I want to stay for two weeks and surf every day," she said.