Elaine Abonal, on the Wave of Surfing Success

Through Surfista Travels, the Siargao-based surfer teaches people to surf, boosts Siargao’s tourism, empowers women, and gives jobs to locals, all while having fun. By Cecile J. Baltasar

Elaine Abonal
After falling in love with surfing, Elaine Abonal started organizing surfing trips for friends to Baler, La Union, and Siargao, until she decided to turn it into a business called Surfista Travels

“What I love best about my job is that I get to be part of people’s first experience surfing in the ocean,” says Elaine Abonal, owner and founder of Surfista Travels. Based in Siargao island, Elaine gives tourists—both foreign and local—surf lessons. In the process, she also inspires women in a male-dominated sport and boosts local employment and tourism.

It’s a dream that was born from her love of surfing. After learning to surf in 2002, Elaine started organizing surfing trips for friends to Baler, La Union, and Siargao. Eventually, with encouragement from surfer friends, she decided to turn it into a business.

Beginner’s wipe-outs

Like all start-ups, though, getting Surfista Travels up from the ground was bumpy.

“I had never run my own business before; there was nothing like Surfista out there,” says Elaine. “There was a lot of trial and error. There were even a few times when I didn’t make money because of wrong computations. Or because I forgot to pay myself.”

Elaine Abonal

Elaine, certified by the International Surfing Association, took all the bumps, learned from them, and forged on.

“I learned that you should go for what you really want despite your or other people’s doubts. I learned that there are so many people willing to help and support you if you just put yourself out there. I learned that more than applying business strategies, you should always stay real and honest to yourself, your customers, and your mission. I learned that because of Siargao’s sudden increase in tourism and prices, you have to learn to adapt and be more creative in your strategies.”

Through it all, Surfista’s message is that “surfing is for everyone—regardless of age, size, weight, sex, or country you are from.”

READ: Photojournalist Lester Ledesma—20 Years of Traveling and Dreaming

On a roll

Elaine’s early familiarity with other cultures helps her in her business. At 17, she traveled to Wisconsin, US, as an exchange student. The experience pushed her later on to keep traveling and learn other languages. (Fun fact: Apart from English and Filipino, Elaine can also teach surfing in Spanish and French.)

Elaine Abonal
Surfing isn’t just for grown-ups. Even small kids can do it

Now on its seventh year, Surfista Travels has become, in its own little way, a contributor to Siargao’s tourism boom—Surfista’s clientele is 60 percent foreign; and many of its Filipino customers are balikbayan folks. “Surfista was able to bring in a lot of conscious travelers, students and surfers to Siargao and it was nice to be able to show the surf island from a Filipino’s perspective,” says Elaine.

She also makes sure that Surfista’s instructors—who are also locals of Siargao—help administer every “Surfista experience.”

“They actually are surfers and are knowledgeable about the surf spots and the ocean, and abide by the [global] standards I uphold in Surfista,” says Elaine. All of Surfista’s local instructors are certified for first aid and CPR.

READ: How This 27-Year-Old Found Her Dream Profession

Elaine Abonal
Surfista offers packages that are specially designed for families with young kids

Five principles of a surfing biz

Next to passion, Elaine counts hard work, tenacity, and belief in oneself to be the cornerstones of any successful business. Here, she shares a few rules she lives by to keep Surfista successful, and ensure their students keep coming back for more:

1. Be professional and authentic with your clients.

2. Always have fun with both your students and local instructors.

3. Don’t be afraid to charge and know your worth as a professional and as someone with a lot of experience.

4. [Go above and beyond]: give more to the experience than what your clients and students expect. They should leave inspired and wanting [to surf] more.

5. Remember that surfing deals with the ocean; there are a lot of things [about it that are] out of our control. Make decisions that will keep everyone safe while having fun. Go with the flow.

Elaine Abonal

Surfista Travels offers Surfista Day, Surfista Kids, and Surfista Weekend Packages. These include surf lessons, surf theory, professionally taken photos of you surfing, and a photo/video analysis after your lesson. For more information, check out Facebook: Surfista Travels, Instagram: surfistasiargao, or send an email to surfistatravels@gmail.com.

All photos by Oliver Bayer

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