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 (SDSU) 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.”

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 programme is Great Britain's Plymouth University, which offers a Surf Science and Technology degree. That programme focuses more on training students in design, production and marketing of surf products and tourism.

The SDSU research centre has scheduled summits to bring together surfers, environmental organisations, 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.

More In: Comment | Opinion