As the popularity of ecotourism in the sunshine state reach new heights, outfitters are dreaming up fresh adventures for nature lovers
Ican’t think of anything more wonderful than sitting quietly in the middle of a bayou, watching the antics of a nearby young dolphin. Or, and almost equal, paddling through the skinny waters of some mangrove tunnel past the watchful eyes of a night heron. Sometimes I just stay completely land- based and walk the quiet trails of places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. But to put it very simply, I’m an ecotourist. Week after week, South Florida newspapers, especially Sunday editions, print ads inviting readers to take various naturalist- guided wildlife tours like “Kayak with the Manatees,” “Watch Dolphins at Play” or “Ride an Airboat through Alligator- filled Swamps.” Prices, times, locales and content may all vary but each and every one seems to provide a genuine ecotourism experience. Sounds wonderful, no? But just what is ecotourism? Is it some new form of sales hype? Well, the answer is “no.”
Ecotourism is not just some recently invented catch phrase dreamed up by a marketer. It appears to have been first coined in the mid- 1960s by Claus- Dieter Hetzer, a West Coast ( California) academic, who offered ecotours to the Yucatan. Popularization of
Pine Island Sound is another favorite with the ecotourism crowd. Full of fascinating islands, the waterway is great for kayaking.
the term, however, didn’t really come about until the early 1980s when Hector Caballos- Lascurain, director of the Mexican Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology, began using it in a lobbying effort to conserve northern Yucatan wetlands for the breeding and feeding habitat of the American flamingo. So much for history.
Today there is an international ecotourism organization, along with many national and local ones. Southwest Florida, in fact, gave birth to its own: The Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism ( SEE), a non- profit educational group incorporated in 2001 to establish and maintain an ethical code of local ecotourism. SEE was the outgrowth from a 1998 Southwest Florida ecotourism workshop and has restructured itself to become statewide. It is now officially Florida SEE. The name, of course, Society for
Ethical Ecotourism begs the obvious question, “Is there such a thing as unethical ecotourism?” I asked John Kiseda, SEE’s executive director, and discovered that it was not a simple yes or no sort of thing. “Ecotourism,” he told me, “doesn’t mean just taking people out into nature . . . there’s a lot of ‘ green washing’ ( untrue ecotourist claims) going on.”
True ecotourism works on several levels for the ecotourist like you and me and for the ecotour provider. For us, as individuals, it’s a fairly simple code: Be as one with the environment, do nothing disruptive, take only memories ( photos, too) and leave only footprints. In other words, don’t ride the back of a manatee, throw marshmallows to a sunbathing alligator or leave an area littered with sandwich wrappers and soda cans.
For tour providers it’s more involved and goes well beyond simply providing individual tourists with safe, informative tours or tour facilities. As an educational organization Florida SEE is very much concerned with the concept of sustainability or providing for the environment. And environment in this instance is a very broad term. Are the operator’s business practices ethical? Is he or she actively supporting one or more of the local service groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, Lions or Community Fund? Do they contribute financially to the area? Buy supplies and equipment ocally or hire locally? And, on a strictly ecological level, how are they taking care to minimize their impact on the environment? Are there any controls over the number of daily visitors to an area? Do they limit the number of tours given or the size of individual tours? And finally, how well trained or informed is their staff?
A few years ago, in addition to simple education, Florida SEE began a certification program. Tour operators who meet, or believe they can meet, Florida SEE’s ethical ecotourism standards can apply to be certified. Since only a relatively small number of operators have thus far applied for certification it should not be assumed that a not- yet- certified operator is in any way less ethical or will provide a less satisfactory experience for you.
Ask questions. How experienced are the tour guides? What training do they have? How long have they been guiding and can they guarantee you’ll see anything specific, such as dolphins, manatees or a particular species of bird? This last point is especially important because you’re asking about wildlife and no ethical operator can guarantee what or when you’ll see some of it. ( If one tries, time to look elsewhere.) And, of course, whenever practical, find out what other customers are saying with a quick visit to Internet sites like yelp. com and tripadvisor. com.
Now, what does all of this have to do with us in Southwest Florida? Well, very simply, we have the good fortune to sit in the midst of an ecotourist paradise, which an increasing number of visitors come to take advantage of it. Tourism, as everyone knows, is a major factor in the Florida economy, and ecotourism is a rapidly growing segment within it.
With the Gulf, rivers and lakes around us, it’s only natural that waterborne ecotourism abounds here. If you’re lucky enough to have your own kayak or paddleboard then, to paraphrase an expression, Southwest Florida is your oyster. There are an almost infinite number of bays, bayous, rivers and the like to explore at your leisure. But for the less adventurous or those without their own equipment, the area is home to a multitude of outfitters and tour operators. And if it’s water you’re headed toward, the choices are endless.
First, do you want to rent equipment to go out on your own or would you rather be part of a tour? If you’re one of the former types, then a few words of caution. Before starting out, ask questions. Where should you go? Where are you most likely to see whatever it is that interests you? And, perhaps even more important, where should you not go? Ask also about the tides. In some cases they’ll make little or no difference to you, but, for others, it’s another story entirely.
Parts of the Estero River, for example, are tidal. A downstream paddle with an outgoing tide or just the gentle river current can be very pleasant. But, if the tide’s against you, then returning upstream is not nearly so effortless. Ask advice. The outfitter on that river can be most helpful.
The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is another excellent example of where tidal awareness can be important. It may have little effect on your paddle if you’re merely planning to explore the main areas of Tarpon Bay— the shoreline or the Rookery Islands. If, however, you want to paddle along the Commodore Trail, a well- marked water path through mangrove tunnels and some interior parts of the wildlife refuge, then tides may very well affect your plan. There are times, according to Wendy Schnapp, general manager for Tarpon Bay Explorers, the concessionaire at the refuge, when “we have to let them [ kayakers] know that the trail is not accessible and tell them when it will be.” Fortunately, tides and times can be predicted well in advance. So except for weather changes, optimum paddling conditions can be anticipated quite accurately.
The growing interest in ecotourism is forcing the industry to expand along with it. Many outdoor enthusiasts are no longer satisfied to spend only two or three hours exploring their nearby environment or taking the same wildlife tours year after year.
Greg LeBlanc of Captiva Kayak Co. & Wildside Adventures leads a tour through the mangroves.