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San Diego university opens center to study surfing

    Since Jess Ponting's pioneering scientific research institute started at San Diego State University three months ago, Ponting has consulted governments, scholars, nonprofit groups and policymakers interested in making surf tourism a sustainable industry that can drive economies from Papua New Guinea to Liberia. Associated Press

SAN DIEGO » 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 website, sports a suit and tie while holding a surfboard. "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 Papua New Guinea to Liberia, Ponting said.

Yet there is virtually no concrete data on how big the board-carting crowd has become nor exactly how much money they generate. Scholars like Ponting estimate surf fever has caught on in 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 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 helping alleviate poverty and protect 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.

Corrine Roybal, a 21-year-old SDSU hospitality and tourism management major, said she held the surfer-dude 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."

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