University pioneers research on surf industry

December 3, 2011 - 5:00 PM

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The California city that inspired "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the 1982 comedy film that did much to propagate the laid-back surfer image, is now home to the world's first Center for Surf Research. And, no, it's not a clever way for college kids to earn their degrees by hanging out at the beach.

Jess Ponting has heard those jokes. A sustainable tourism professor, he recently founded the first-of-its-kind institute at San Diego State University with the aim of building a database and spreading awareness about what has evolved from a beach counterculture to a multibillion dollar global industry, with both positive and negative impacts. Ponting was amazed to find how little research and critical analysis exists on the surf industry

"We want to quantify exactly what we're dealing with," said Ponting, who, on the university's web site, sports a suit-and-tie while holding a surf board. "I think it's way bigger than anybody gives it credit for, but no one has taken it seriously enough to look at it before."

Decades ago, long-haired surfers chasing isolated ocean peaks far from the crowded beaches of Australia and California stumbled into remote villages from Indonesia to Latin America and kicked off the global phenomenon. Today, so many surfers are traveling the globe in pursuit of that perfect swell that surf tourism is being seen as a top income-generator for nations from Papau New Guinea to Liberia, Ponting said. Even China has created a so-called Minister for Extreme Sports to dive in on the booming business.

Yet there is virtually no concrete data on just how big the board-carting crowd has become nor exactly how much money they generate. Scholars like Ponting estimate surf fever has caught on more than 100 countries, while the U.S. surf industry alone generates an estimated $7 billion annually, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Chad Nelsen, who is doing a dissertation on the economics of surfing as part of his doctorate studies in environmental science at the University of California Los Angeles, said the only other university he has found with a formal surfing program is Great Britain's Plymouth University, which offers a Surf Science and Technology degree. That program focus more on training students in design, production and marketing of surf products and tourism.

The SDSU research center has scheduled summits to bring together surfers, environmental organizations, tourism businesses and the small but growing wave of scholars studying surf economics. Ponting is arranging trips that will take students to places where tourism driven by surfers is making a difference in alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

One of Ponting's hopes is that connecting the different facets of the surf industry will carry over into helping governments in developing countries understand the surf crowd and develop plans to handle the hordes.

To date, few people question the impact of surfers, Ponting said, and there are few sweeping plans about how to properly manage the surf tourism trade.

Ponting, a lifelong surfer from Australia, has traveled the globe catching waves and has seen how crowds of swell seekers have transformed remote parts of the world — in both good and bad ways.

With no planning, many poor, remote communities discovered by surf explorers in the 1960s got caught up in what Ponting calls "the race to the bottom" with locals expanding their homes and offering cheap accommodation, but with little infrastructure to handle the mounting sewage and trash, which seep into pristine marine environments.

As a result, "surf slums" sprang up in paradise. Ponting points to some traditional Muslim villages in Indonesia that found themselves dealing with big-city problems brought in by the outsiders, including illegal drug use and prostitution.

On the other hand, there are places like Papua New Guinea, a model that has a national surf management plan limiting the number of surfers to popular spots and taxing them to help pay for sewage treatment, water systems and schools. Papua New Guinea also requires surfers to pay for a local surf guide, creating jobs for its people instead of merely playing host to foreign travel companies.

Surfers are unique in that they — unlike other kinds of tourists — will often pursue a wave no matter how far and difficult it may be to get there, Ponting said. They flock to nations in the midst of wars or after natural disasters, making them a resilient market for impoverished countries struggling to persuade traditional tourists to return.

That makes them a key market for places like Liberia, which has struggled to lose its image as a place of civil unrest but is quickly rising as the next unexplored surf frontier. Ponting is working on funding for a joint project with a nonprofit organization to guide the country's tourism department so locals reap the benefits instead of foreigners who may better understand the market.

The research center is working on developing a program that would certify surf hotels that ensure their operations do not pollute and that invest money back into the local communities where they are located. There is a growing tide of philanthropy among surfers wanting to help the places they visit.

Nelsen, who works as an environmental director at Surfrider Foundation, said the surf research center will give a much needed boost to organizations like his working to make the industry sustainable. He said it will also give credibility to scholars who have been dismissed because of the "Spicoli bias," referring to Jeff Spicoli, the apathetic, stoned surfing character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

"If you have academically vetted information, it's a lot more valuable and accepted, and there's precious little of that out there on surfing," Nelsen said. "We don't want to see surfers discounted when they talk to their local city councils. This will provide tools so surfers can justify their interest in protecting surfing areas."

Corrine Roybal, a 21-year-old SDSU hospitality and tourism management major, said she held those stereotypes before taking a class from Ponting.

"It's an industry I didn't know really existed," said Roybal, after listening to Ponting lecture on a recent afternoon about how boats shuttling surfers to waves are destroying reefs with their anchors. "I had the stereotypical view of a surfer just out there to surf. It has really opened my eyes."