Wildlife Tourism Has Huge Impact On Gulf Coast
By D. Fran Morley, Condo Owner Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 3
Wildlife tourism is a vital industry all along the Northern Gulf Coast. Some 20 million visitors a year flock to the beaches, back bays, rivers, and woods of the coast, from Texas to Florida, to take part in all aspects of wildlife-related tourism, including wildlife watching (birds, dolphins, and other creatures), recreational fishing, hiking, biking, boating, and hunting.
According to the study Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy, prepared by the economic research firm Data Research LLC and funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and Walton Family Foundation, wildlife tourism generates more than $19.4 billion in spending across the five Gulf Coast states with Alabama having a $2 billion piece of the pie and Florida dishing up a hefty slice of more than $8 billion.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., the number of tourists who report that they visit the area in part because of the “wildlife” or “environment” has doubled in the past ten years—a trend that tourism officials would like to see continue, said Colette Boehm, director of special projects for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “We have partnered for years with organizations such as the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant on a Nature Tourism Initiative. Through this effort, we work to support local businesses that are dependent upon nature tourism and provide them with resources to make their operations more sustainable. Those businesses touch millions of visitors a year.”
These operations set a good example, Boehm said. “Visitors leave with a better understanding of how our ecosystem works and what they can do to help protect the environment, even in their hometowns.”
Wildlife and eco-tourism has been an inherent part of Florida for generations, noted Sue Estler, vice president of marketing for Visit Panama City Beach. “Our natural environment has always been important. It’s just part of what Florida is. In Panama City Beach, we’re bookended by two state parks, with ample opportunities for hiking, camping, bird watching, and biking. Of course all water activities, including scuba diving and standup paddle boarding, depend on having clean water, so that’s always been important, too.”
New features on www.VisitPanamaCityBeach.com are aimed at educating the public about the natural environment, Estler said. “We’ve just relaunched our website and added new features about our environment—why our sand is so white and our water turquoise—as well as more about eco-tourism. It’s all interrelated; it’s all important to why people come here to visit.”
One finding in the economic study is how the tourism-related businesses work together to generate business for each other. The study said that many businesses keep a list—usually based on personal experience—of other businesses to recommend to their clients. For example, guides like to recommend places that they regularly eatand the survey said that the concierge service at one large luxury hotel prefers to call smaller outfitters, where they will know the person who answers the phone.
Steve Hayes, vice-president of tourism for Visit Pensacola isn’t surprised. “Tourism impacts across a multitude of different platforms. Visitors might be coming to see an art exhibit, go to beach, go fishing, or all of the above. When a tourist rents a kayak, the economic impact doesn’t stop with the rental fee. Any tourism-related transaction—lodging, dining, buying gas or souvenirs, renting a canoe, hiring a charter boat for fishing, etc.—contributes to the community in many ways.”
Protecting the healthy environment is important to all the interrelated tourism businesses, Boehm said. “So much of what people love about our destination is related to beautiful beaches, water accessibility, and abundant seafood, all of which are dependent on a healthy environment. These things are important for our typical ‘summer beach vacation’ visitors but also to those who come other times of the year to explore the trails or get out on the back bays. We’re fortunate to have not only this amazingly bio-diverse region, but also great facilities like Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Gulf State Park, and Weeks Bay Reserve.”
Hayes agreed, and said that Pensacola is more than just the beach. “The great thing about the greater Pensacola area is that we have the beautiful beach plus wonderful parks, like Big Lagoon State Park in Perdido, where you can launch a canoe or kayak or walk on nature trails. Many people come for the birding, which is incredible there.”
A newly completed eco-trail is aimed at educating visitors and locals. Called “Footprints in the Sand,” it is a project of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. “Pensacola Beach is a flourishing, wild habitat filled with hundreds of species of animals and plants,” said Buck Lee, SRIA executive director. “Eco-tourism is a growing segment of the global tourism industry, and the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail allows visitors to experience Pensacola Beach wildlife firsthand.”
Having a healthy environment has been vital to the success of the Alabama Coastal BirdFest, scheduled for October 3-5, 2013. Since its first event in 2004, it has drawn thousands of birders from 25 states and Canada, according to event founder John Borom. “Many of our out-of-state birders are making their first trip to the Gulf Coast; but they come back again because they like what they find here. We’re fortunate to be in a prime spot to see birds, especially during the annual migrations, but if we didn’t have good, healthy habitats for these birds, we wouldn’t have an event, and we wouldn’t have this positive impact on the economy. As (the) study shows, a healthy environment is important to our economy and to our overall high quality of life.”
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