When nature lovers book vacations in the great outdoors, they want their dollars to help preserve the places they visit. UF 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. “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.”
The Sunshine State is becoming more conservation-oriented. “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 more commercially successful operators indicated that they provided environmental education to visitors, supported conservation initiatives, recycled waste and used environmentally friendly equipment.
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 Parkand 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.’”