UF study: Nature-based tourism often benefits local environment, economy
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When nature lovers book vacations in the great outdoors, they want their dollars to help preserve the places they visit, and a University of Florida study suggests that often happens.
Research in Costa Rica, one of the world’s top destinations for nature-based tourism, showed that successful tour businesses usually invested in environmental protection and maintenance, and tour businesses of all sizes circulated money throughout local economies.
The findings could help Florida’s fledgling nature-based tourism industry increase its appeal to potential customers, said author Taylor Stein, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The study appears in the current issue of the journal Environmental Conservation.
“Letting customers know is the key,” said Stein, of UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation. “If you think part of your market will appreciate your efforts to preserve the environment, tell them what you’re doing.”
Though Florida is best known for tourist destinations that aren’t off the beaten path — think theme parks, golf courses and beaches — Stein says the Sunshine State is becoming more conservation-oriented nonetheless.
“It used to be that you didn’t see hotels bragging about the fact that they don’t wash the bath towels every day of your stay,” he said. “But now, it’s rare not to see these signs in most hotels. If that makes customers happier, the hotels will do it.”
Helping customers feel “greener” about their vacations was a key goal for larger businesses involved in the UF study, which surveyed tour operators and travel agencies in six parts of Costa Rica.
The larger, more commercially successful operators indicated that they provided environmental education to visitors, supported conservation initiatives, recycled waste and used environmentally friendly equipment.
Regardless of size, most of the businesses reported employing local residents, purchasing supplies locally and using local lodging.
In Florida, nature-based tourism was the fastest-growing sector of the state’s tourism industry in the 1990s, and may still be — Stein said there hasn’t been much definitive research on the subject lately.
But most Florida counties hope to market their natural attractions, he said. And at least one is working to position itself as a top destination for nature-based tourism. That’s Brevard County, located on the Atlantic coast and home to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Sebastian Inlet State Park and several other notable attractions.
“That’s a pretty big deal for Florida,” Stein said. “We’re not used to saying ‘come to our forests, come to our springs.’”
Stein authored the study with graduate student Lisa Seales. His latest project focuses on ways to market the Florida National Scenic Trail, which covers 1,400 miles from the westernmost part of the Panhandle to the southern tip of peninsular Florida.