Surf-mad Aussies hungry for man-made rides

A wave fit for Thor: actor Chris Hemsworth is among those to have tried out URBNSURF in Melbourne.
A wave fit for Thor: actor Chris Hemsworth is among those to have tried out URBNSURF in Melbourne.

In a country blessed with some of the world's best beaches, investors are heaping a tonne of money in man-made surf parks.

If all the projects currently on the drawing board get up, Australia could soon have more than half a dozen artificial breaks and a brand new string to its tourism bow.

Some of the projects are mind-boggling in scale.

In January last year, Urbnsurf opened the nation's first surf park 20km from the coast, near Melbourne's Tullamarine airport. It cost $43 million and is the size of the MCG.

Later this year it plans to start construction of another about the same size at Sydney Olympic Park, at a cost of $50 million.

Perth and Brisbane will be next, Urbnsurf CEO Damon Tudor says, with talks already well advanced on a potential site for the Queensland park.

North of Brisbane, the man known as the greater surfer of all time has attached his name to what is being marketed as Surf Ranch Sunshine Coast.

The Kelly Slater Wave Company - now owned by professional governing body World Surf League - has teamed up with a developer and builder planning a massive new development at Coolum, a kilometre from the beach.

The $100 million wave park will be at the heart of a $1.2 billion resort-style project on 510 hectares of cane land surrounded by a hotel, villas, apartments, green spaces and even a new school.

Don O'Rorke is the CEO of developer, Consolidated Properties Group, and sees vast potential for the venue to become a hub for professional surfing and surf tourism in Australia.

He points to the success of Slater's prototype surf ranch at Lemoore in California, home of the Freshwater Pro, one of the WSL's championship tour events attracting the world's top riders. Before the pandemic hit, it was operating at full capacity.

"There's only one major tourism asset on the Sunshine Coast, which is Australia Zoo, and we think this will be a really good complementary asset," he says.

"We also think it's a really good Olympics asset, either as a training facility or a competition facility, with the state now finalising its bid (for the 2032 Games).

"The Olympics are likely to be in August and that's not a great surf month in Australia."

Elsewhere across the country investors are pressing on with other wave park proposals.

On the Gold Coast, 10km from Surfers Paradise beach, Parkwood Village intends building the Glitter Strip's first dedicated surf park, adding to its golf, mini-golf, leisure and dining offerings.

At Wisemans Ferry, north of Sydney, the Wisemans Surf Lodge is due to open in 2022, with a wave pool four football fields in length, capable of generating 2.5-metre peaks in multiple shapes every 10 seconds or so.

You get the picture. Investors think surf parks are a sure thing in a land of beaches and they say there are a few reasons for that.

Chief among them are surety and safety. Waves are guaranteed regardless of the weather, and can be dialled up from kid-friendly Waikiki style ripples to two-metre barrelling waves that will satisfy the most experienced surfers.

Also, you won't be eaten by a shark or swept out to sea.

Tudor, from Urbnsurf, says all the parks in the pipeline might not become reality but it's clear the foundation stones for a new industry are being laid, and there's money to be made.

The Tullamarine park opened 11 weeks before Australia's first covid lockdown and in total lost seven entire months of business last year. The lock-out of international tourists forced it to pivot, fast, to focus on domestic tourism and that's been a huge success.

Tudor says the park is drawing everyone from experienced surfers who want a guaranteed ride, to kids who are learning, and less experienced riders who don't like the sometimes intimidating experience of trying to get a wave at crowded breaks.

Since it opened, 65,000 unique visitors have walked through the gates. He thinks there's enough appetite in a surf-mad nation for his business to prosper and sees the eventual return of international tourists as a bonus.

"We've created an environment that's a lot more accessible for people who surf a lot but also for people who don't."

Australian Associated Press