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Why surf brands like Rip Curl are betting on wave-less Singapore

Unlike its neighboring tropical islands, Singapore lacks the waves essential for surfing, but that geographical restraint hasn't stopped companies from creating, and cashing in, on a surf culture.

The Asian financial hub is nestled in between Malaysia and Indonesia where major currents rarely enter, so the country has no chance of getting world-class waves, explained Fernando Aguerre, president of the California-headquartered International Surfing Association (ISA), which is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the world's governing authority on the sport.

Still, leading surf retailers such as Rip Curl have maintained a presence in the country for years, selling professional surf gear as well as mainstream apparel. The Australian brand first launched in Singapore in the late 1990s and has logged steady revenues ever since, with 20 percent growth in the past 12-18 months, James Hendy, Southeast Asia marketing manager at Rip Curl, said.

Rip Curl surfer Miguel Blanco
Alex Lesbats | Rip Curl

The lack of giant waves also didn't stop the island nation, known as the Lion City, from becoming an official ISA member in 2010.

"Proximity to the ocean or quality of waves is not the only factor taken into consideration," Aguerre explained. "When the ISA is considering the application of a new member, we also look at the vision to promote the development of all wave-riding sports in the country." Other unconventional ISA members include Afghanistan, Dubai and Switzerland.

Board-riding culture

Indeed, Singapore's waves may be too small to surf but they are perfect for skim boarding, wakeboarding and stand up paddle boarding—three offshoots of surfing immensely popular on the island.

These also fall under the general category of board sports, which includes skateboarding—also popular in the Lion City. Board sports share similar movements, which mean they often share a similar fan base as well.

Now, Rip Curl is tapping into Singapore's board-riding culture with its latest campaign, Artist of the Search (AOTS).

The company conducts a regular campaign called "The Search," a series of adventure-fueled trips involving Rip Curl-sponsored pro surfers travelling the world in search of the perfect wave.

But AOTS, a broader program spanning music, arts and other creative endeavors, invites artists from various backgrounds to submit their personal vision of "The Search."

Rip Curl surfer Dillon Perillo in a January edition of 'The Search.'
Dave Sparkes and Ted Grambeau | Rip Curl

"Is it skateboarding, carving a clean line in the bowl, perfecting the kick flip? Is it graffiti, finding a spot to throw up your sick piece? Or maybe it's photography, and the relentless pursuit of the perfect image," Rip Curl said in a statement.

By embracing the urban, arts-oriented culture behind board sports, especially skateboarding, the company could broaden its reach in regions that aren't rich in waves, according to Hendy.

AOTS makes its Singapore debut on June 17 with a public launch party at Kult Kafe, featuring live music, art and the latest from Rip Curl's clothing collection.

"There may be people who never get to ride waves in Singapore but if they are interested in board-riding sports, whether it's windsurfing or skateboarding or surfing, we're selling that lifestyle and aspiration," Hendy explained.

Singapore's large population of surfers, skaters and skim boarders was also key source of motivation behind the 2008 launch of Wave House, a California-based global chain of beach facilities with artificial wave machines.

Located in the man-made beach enclave of Sentosa, the firm aspired to be the country's go-to destination for board sports lovers, a spokesperson told CNBC.

A surfing gateway

For surf-oriented businesses, Singapore remains far from an ideal market but its proximity to hotspots such as Indonesia's Mentawai made it a worthwhile investment, according to insiders.

"Singapore has a community of surf lovers, who travel the Asia Pacific region in the absence of real waves in Singapore, so we provide the opportunity for them to practice and enjoy the sport when they aren't travelling," Wave House's spokesman told CNBC.

"It's not the classic coastal beach market but it is an international hub and gateway for surfing throughout the whole of Asia Pacific...So it's important we have a brand presence here," Hendy echoed.

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