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ODU Prof Studying Virginia Beach Surf Scene

Lindsey UsherLindsay Usher

Virginia Beach has a decades-long reputation as an East Coast hotbed of surf culture.

The East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC), an annual contest held in Virginia Beach that has been running for more than 50 years, is the second-oldest surfing event in the world. A number of surf businesses (which are now internationally known) started in the resort city. The warm water and relatively small waves in Virginia Beach offer an inviting environment, particularly for novice surfers.

Lindsay Usher, an assistant professor of park, recreation and tourism studies in Old Dominion University's Department of Human Movement Sciences, conducted focus groups with local surfers in Virginia Beach last November and December and now has plans to expand that study.

She is currently recruiting surfers from Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News, Chesapeake and Suffolk for more focus groups, which will meet at ODU.

Usher, who arrived at the university last summer after finishing her doctorate at Penn State in recreation, park and tourism management, said she is conducting the focus groups to learn more about the local surf community. "I didn't want to just come in and draw up a survey and make a lot of assumptions about what needed to be studied here with regard to surfing."

By conducting the focus groups, she will be able to learn about what is important to surfers and what should be studied. "Virginia Beach is a huge tourist destination, and finding the balance between welcoming tourists and still taking local needs into account is a challenge for every major destination."

However, Usher does not believe that the local surf community has been considered as part of that equation before now.

"One of the things I research is how tourism affects local communities, and one of the ways surfers are affected by it here is through the surfing regulations that are in place during the summer months, due to the large crowds of tourists which descend on the beaches. I don't think anyone has ever studied what surfers think about the regulations, or how they have changed over the years."

With the explosion of the sport in the past decade, surf schools abound at Virginia Beach, causing packed surfing areas to be even more crowded.

Usher got interested in the study of surf tourism and local communities following her time as an eco-tourism facilitator in Guatemala for the Peace Corps. Wanting to turn her Peace Corps experience into graduate schoolwork, she became aware of the outsized impact surfing, and surf tourism, has on Central American countries.

As a volunteer, she became aware of the need to facilitate community involvement in tourism in order for locals to gain more economic benefit. As a surfer, she was aware of the tremendous impact surf tourism was having on communities throughout Central America, and how few academics were paying attention to it.

For her doctoral dissertation, Usher spent two months in Popoyo, a small Nicaraguan beach town and surf destination, during the 2012 tourist season, researching a community of surfers and doing an ethnographic study of localism (the practice of local surfers aggressively defending their "home" surf break from outsiders).

"Tourism is such an economic driver for these countries, so the emergence of localism could be very detrimental in the developing world," Usher said.

The experience of being part of a surf community is nothing new to Usher, despite the fact she didn't take up the sport until returning from the Peace Corps, right before starting graduate school.

Spending summers on North Carolina's Outer Banks, Usher took up surf kayaking when she was 12 years old, ultimately competing in four world championships in the sport - which sees boaters ride waves like stand-up surfers while seated in a kayak. "I've always felt like I've been part of the surf culture," she said.

Usher plans to return to Central America this summer to continue her ethnographic research into surf communities. She will be doing a comparative study of her dissertation work at the world-famous surf break of Pavones in southern Costa Rica.

The worldwide, avid popularity of surfing as a sport and a hobby lends itself to many research avenues, Usher said.

"I'm not sure the city of Virginia Beach realizes the extent to which surfing is a part of the local culture," Usher said. "They have data on the economic impact of surfing events like the ECSC, but for a city which has been one of the birthplaces of the East Coast surf scene, I'm not sure they're aware of how much the sport has grown and how the popularity of the sport might be drawing tourists here as well."

Surfers who are interested in participating in a focus group are encouraged to contact Usher at lusher@odu.edu.