How do wave pools affect crowding in the ocean? A look at Japan

There is a consistent complaint in the surfing world regarding wave pools: They will create more surfers and therefore make the ocean more crowded.

But could the opposite not also be true? If there are finite surf spots with finite waves in a given area, could adding a new, quality surf spot to the area, i.e. a wave pool, provide more spots to thin out the crowd?

To explore this hypothesis we spoke to Shunichi Matsuuchi, Assistant General Manager of Surf Stadium, in Makinohara, Japan to get his opinion.

Surf Stadium sits a mere 200 meters from a popular local surf spot, Shizunami Beach, making it unique. It’s the closest pool to a regularly surfed spot in the world and the best case study we found.

surf stadium japan image by wavepoolmag
Just down the street from here is Shizunami Beach, which makes the Surf Stadium Japan wave pool experience unique. You can surf in the ocean in the morning, then walk 200 meters down the street and surf guaranteed waves.

“There is a correlation between the ocean and the pool,” said Matsuuchi. “On days that there are small waves, we see more reservations at the pool. However, many people even surf the pool on days when there are waves, too.”

According to Matsuuchi, Surf Stadium consistently sells out its open pool slots during the summer a month in advance. A day of full capacity means around 100 surfers in the pool with about 50 extra people in the entourages not surfing, he estimates. Outside of high season they fill about 80% of capacity.

The result is undoubtedly more surfers visiting Makinohara than if the pool didn’t exist, but what effect might that have on the ocean crowds?

wave pool amenities
Shizunami Beach: A curated guest experience is easy at the wave pool here in town (above), but not so much at the beach environs just down the street (below).
beach town services shizunami

Matsuuchi says there is a balance.

“We believe there is some impact on minimizing the crowding in the ocean lineups,” said Matsuuchi. “But at the same time we are also creating new surfers in the pool that will also surf in the ocean, so there is a balance.”

What is clear is that surfing is growing in Japan, a trend that Matsuuchi believes was accelerated by the sport’s Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020. In 2017 the Nippon Surfing Association estimated that there are around 2 million surfers in the country. And now the Olympic wave of popularity has spurred more kids to try the sport, as well as incentivized the return of what Matsuuchi calls “comeback surfers” – those who used to surf, but stopped, and have now picked up the sport again.

Matsuuchi also brings up the classic argument of the chicken and the egg. What came first: The increase in surfers and therefore a demand for a pool, or the pool which then created an increase in surfers?

“The fact that [Surf Stadium] was built is a sure sign that a demand for surfing already existed,” said Matsuuchi. “And regardless of the pool, the number of surfers in Japan is still expected to increase.”

At the end of the day, the allure of scoring surf ensures wave pools close to the beach will have a steady influx of clientele.

While there is not sufficient data at Makinohara or a large enough sample size to definitively claim causation between a wave pool and nearby ocean waves, Matsuuchi says the anecdotal evidence already exists.

“Speaking from a global perspective, seeing surfers travel to surf, I believe crowds may eventually become smaller at popular surf trip destinations,” said Matsuuchi. “I already know of some surfers who decided to come to our pool in Japan instead of going on a surf trip to Costa Rica because it is cheaper, easier, and the waves are guaranteed.”

Matsucchi brings up an interesting point. Could the perfection of a wave pool start to replace not just the spots in proximity to the pool, but also the act of a surf trip abroad? Maybe the impact of Surf Stadium, and wave pools in general, is just as large, or larger, on popular surf destinations abroad.

It appears that the transition to wave pool surf trips has already begun, at least on a small scale. As wave pools proliferate and become more accessible, one can imagine that this trend would only accelerate.

Endless Surf 2023A