The Promise and Challenge

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courtesy Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office

“Katie’s Kaboose,” a restored 1928 Frisco caboose, is the latest in rustic accommodations at the Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center near Milton. The center offers activities including ziplining, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, camping and group outings.


Tourism, hands-down Florida’s No. 1 industry, has been on a steady climb since 2011, with 2016’s count expected to top 2015’s record-breaking 105 million visitors when the final numbers are determined. It follows, then, that ecotourism, a vital component of tourism, would also be on the rise. And in fact, the anecdotal and statistical evidence bear this out.

Although Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism-promoting agency, doesn’t distinguish, per se, between tourism and ecotourism, its data profiles offer a glimpse into visitors’ participation in activities generally regarded as ecotourism-related. Granted, the number of travelers who visit state and national parks or engage in camping, hiking, wildlife viewing and other nature-based activities is nowhere near the number of those who prefer shopping, sightseeing, theme parks and similar pursuits; still, they represent a significant and growing segment.

Vicki Allen, senior manager of research for Visit Florida, notes that while the percentage of visitors engaging in nature-based activities hasn’t changed much, the number of participants has increased.

“The share of visitors who participated in these activities has remained relatively the same,” Allen says. “However, the number of visitors to Florida from 2011 to 2015 has increased. So yes, the number of visitors who have participated in nature activities has grown proportionately.”

Data from other sources support her point. The Florida Park Service reports that 31.8 million people visited state parks in 2016, up 732,413 from the previous year, with 4.1 million of them favoring Northwest Florida parks and St. Andrews in Panama City Beach ranking among the 10 most popular. Meanwhile, a five-year study by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “2011 Economic Benefits of Wildlife Viewing in Florida” (the next study won’t come out until spring 2017), ranked Florida first among states for wildlife viewing by out-of-state residents and found wildlife viewing second only to beach-going as the most popular outdoor activity.

Representatives of North Florida’s various tourist development councils, moreover, vouch for ecotourism’s viability in their respective markets.

“For us, tourism and ecotourism are interconnected,” says David Demarest, public relations manager for Visit Panama City Beach. “I would say 100 percent of our visitors enjoy some level of ecotourism, given how much our model is geared around outdoor activities.”

Jackson County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Christy Andreasen says, “Ecotourism is huge for us,” while citing her area’s wealth of cultural, historical and natural resources.

Taylor County Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Development President Dawn Taylor echoes the sentiment.

“For us, ecotourism is primarily our tourism, because that’s basically what we have to offer,” she says.

Taylor also chairs Visit Natural North Florida (VNNF), a 14-county coalition whose members include Jefferson, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla counties, and whose singular mission is to promote ecotourism by showcasing members’ cultural, historical and natural assets.

“The great thing about the VNNF region is that every member county has its own little extra something to offer in its ecotourism package,” Taylor says.