Gov. Newsom says surfing can connect California and El Salvador

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — California masterfully markets its surfing culture and Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday he wants to share that expertise with El Salvador to help boost tourism and provide more economic opportunities for its impoverished citizens.

"There's no doubt there's a lot we can do together in this space," Newsom said after a discussion about the surfing industry's economic potential with local business owners, investors and U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes.

He'll have a willing partner in President-elect Nayib Bukele, who he met later. Bukele has an initiative titled "Surf City" aimed at investing in beaches to drive tourism.

"We have the best surfing beaches in the world and they have the other ones," he told reporters after meeting with Newsom. "So we want to work together."

California has a long history with surfing, which became the state's official sport last year. It's the home of The Beach Boys, whose version of surf music produced a series of smash hits in the 1960s including "Surfin' USA" with its lyrics highlighting many of Southern California's signature surf beaches. Sept. 20 is designated California Surfing Day and the state markets surf vacations.

Newsom said the state's tourism arm, Visit California, has already expressed interest in working with El Salvador.

Though El Salvador has among the highest homicide rates in the world and the U.S. government warns its citizens about traveling there, Newsom and Bukele said tourist areas are much safer than other parts of the country. Bukele said he'll work to get the U.S. travel advisory removed when he takes office.

Working together on promoting surfing and economic tourism may be one of the most tangible ways Newsom can build a partnership with El Salvador. As his trip concluded, Newsom told reporters he's walking away more educated about the country's challenges. The updated budget he'll present in May will include new resources for immigrants arriving in the United States and he plans to encourage California business interests to invest in El Salvador; he also discussed bringing Salvadoran business leaders to California for a visit.

As a governor, Newsom has little power to effect immigration policy, but he said his trip was vital to understanding the gang violence and other dynamics that cause people to flee.

Bukele, who takes office in June, wants to strengthen U.S.-Salvadoran relations and was diplomatic when asked his views on President Donald Trump.

"We don't want to meddle into U.S. politics," he said. "We will work with any administration."

The U.S. government already invests some money in Salvadoran infrastructure, including roads and water and sewage treatment near El Salvador's coasts through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created in 2004 under then-President George W. Bush. Last year it contributed about $3 million for a $10.8 million project to develop the coastal area called El Zonte to build hotels and a water treatment plant. MCC has pledged $277 million for coastal development and other projects over a number of years.

Several surfing business owners who joined Newsom on Tuesday said without improved roads and sewage treatment it is harder to attract more tourists. El Salvador has world class surf, particularly on the Punta Roca beach that is well-known to traveling surfers, but lags behind nearby Costa Rica as an international tourist destination, said Jess Ponting, director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University.

"The surf tourism resources (waves) are definitely there, surf tourists just need to know it's relatively safe to travel to and be in those locations," he said in an email. "It seems pretty clear that there is a lot of untapped potential for surf tourism in El Salvador."

Beyond the economic benefits, surfing can provide a dream for young children with few opportunities, said Marcelo Castellanos, who runs a surfing academy in the area. He told Newsom about an 11-year-old boy he trained who eight years later became a professional surfer traveling the world.

"All the kids that grow up in these poor areas know they all can dream," he said. "That happened because we have this program, and we invite the kids who can't pay. The ocean is free, the waves are free. They can make a living and that's the example."

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