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Monday, September 19, 2011
Updated: September 23, 3:23 PM ET
SDSU studies surf sustainability

By Kimball Taylor
ESPN Action Sports

SDSU's new research center will focus on surf specific travel.

"Tourism and surf travel are not the same," said Reef co-founder Fernando Aguerre, "Tourism is like a whorehouse, the best beds go for the biggest money. Surf travel is different."

Aguerre was letting loose at the first- ever "symposium" on surf travel and philanthropy held September 17. An academic conference or "intellectual jam session" built on speeches, panel discussions, and lectures, the symposium was a gathering of people with deeper interests in surf destinations and their communities. The inaugural event had been established by San Diego State University's Center for Surf Research -- in itself a new and unique entity -- and drew a who's who of surf explorers, environmentalists and humanitarians. Wilderness conservation organizations like Wildcoast shared a venue with humanitarian outfits like SurfAid -- whose work toward defeating malaria in the Mentawai islands set the gold-standard for surf-themed aid work. The common thread, many discovered, was the need for healthy breaks and healthy host communities.

What was clear from the outset was the recent surge and variety of non-profits emerging to address them. "I would describe it as a social movement," said Dr. Jess Ponting, Director of the Center for Surf Research.

Ponting is an Australian native whose personal surf travel and education converged in a focus on "sustainable surf tourism." He holds the first-ever PhD in that field and has worked in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico and Fiji -- where he wrote a surf tourism master plan for the Fijian government. Ponting convinced SDSU to house the new non-profit center in its L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

Much of the symposium meditated on issues concerning the impacts of surf travel. Speaker and SDSU alumni Rusty Miller was one of the first to surf Bali's Uluwatu and thus a star of Alby Falzon's "Morning of the Earth." After that iconic discovery, Miller kept in touch with Bali and said that for, a time, tourism and the needs of local people created a good balance. But there came a point, Rusty said, "when visiting surfers ceased to engage in the host community" -- and that's when they lost the plot.

SDSU Surf Research Center will focus on sustaibale surf tourism.

Fernando Aguerre created an analogy about a small surfing village holding a perfect wave. He described the village's development, from a handful of visiting surfers to full hotel and restaurant service to a bustling metropolis, and then he gave the village a name: Cabo San Lucas. This process has been recreated so many times at now famous surf zones that it was interesting to hear from young non-profit directors working in small but growing communities. Zack Parker's Walu for example, is dedicated to improving hygiene and living conditions in coastal communities of Papua New Guinea.

Some of groups represented were spin offs of major apparel manufacturers like Quiksilver and Reef. Another sector of community work was represented by Jon Roseman of Tavarua, whose resort has developed a more comprehensive medical infrastructure for neighboring villages. The challenges for the remainder, mostly young non-profits focused on community development, were laid out by experienced directors. Wildcoast's Serge Dedina pointed out that the commercial surf world may seem large, but it is only a seven-billion dollar industry, about the size of the dry cleaning industry in the U.S. For the new non-profits to prosper and do good work, they need to get busy with the "non-sexy, non-fun" things like diversifying financial support and building strategic plans for both the short and long terms.

"To my mind, one of the worst things that can happen is if a non-profit starts work in a community and then picks up and leaves a year or two later. Commitment to the long term is the only way to be effective," said Tavarua's Jon Roseman.

Dr. Ponting said that part of the appeal to surf-themed non-profit work is that surf travel is "a kind of nirvana that can actually be attained." To make it do lasting good as well is an obvious attraction. "Surfers who get involved with the communities they travel to have their minds blown and their lives changed," said Ponting. "A certain portion of those people need to go deeper."