A couple of years a few agencies in south Alabama put together something they called the Alabama Birding Trail. It was a relatively simple idea really – they developed a brochure that marked different locations where visitors could enjoy birding in the two county area. They had large signs posted at those locations so that the visitor knew they were at the correct location. There seemed to be a need for this with some vacationers and they provided… It was a big success. More and more visitors were using the trail. It became so popular they that conducted a survey and found that about 40% of the visitors who come to our Gulf coast are looking for outdoor/wildlife adventures to do. Ecotourism is becoming more and more popular.
The panhandle is no different. Each year hundreds of thousands to millions of visitors come to our beaches. There is no doubt that we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and they are a huge draw, but we have a lot of outdoor adventures to provide them as well. From scalloping in St. Joe, to snorkeling the jetties in Panama City, to fishing in Destin, to paddling in Navarre, to dolphin cruises in Pensacola the panhandle provides a wide variety of activities for both the local residents and visitors to enjoy – and employment for many.
So what does this have to do with estuaries?
Well, for most of these businesses a healthy wildlife population is needed. A dolphin cruise with no dolphin is not much. Visitors coming to stay on our beaches will certainly enjoy the white sand and emerald waters. They will return home with pictures and stories of how beautiful it was and how they hope to return – but if they saw a sea turtle that week, or went snorkeling and found thousands of tropical fish to view, or kayaked over a lagoon and found horseshoe crabs or stingrays… the stories get better and their urge to return grows. Wildlife and healthy estuaries are good for business – for everyone.
In 2014 the Escambia and Santa Rosa county extension offices launched a program called Naturally EscaRosa to help both locals and visitors locate both agritourism and ecotourism businesses in the two county area. The sight provides information on camping, hiking, fishing, sailing, snorkeling, biking, wildlife viewing, and farm tours (of which the popularity is growing across the country). Most of these depend on a healthy bay. Health advisories, fish kills, and loss or degradation of habitat are all problematic for the ecotourism industry. Snorkeling and finding no scallops, paddling over a lagoon and seeing no wildlife, or a slow fishing day on a charter will obviously hurt business – and remember the spin-off’s such as hotels and restaurants as well.
Estuaries have certainly benefitted this industry. From providing a nursery ground for the species we are trying to view or catch, to paddling through a peaceful salt marsh to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, estuaries have been an important part of our lives. And the sunsets… don’t forget the sunsets.
We encourage all locals and visitors to get out and enjoy the beauty of our bays. As the beach season ends the crowds are down, the weather is cooler, and it is a perfect time to venture out. For information about different activities in your area contact your local tourism board, or your county extension office.