Ecotourism guides outpaddle hurricanes, recession, oil spill
After three debilitating strikes, Ocean Springs is still at bat and determined to hit a home run for marine and ecological tourism in the region, bracing itself against hurricanes, recessions and even oil spills.
Kayaking, a popular aquatic activity similar to canoeing, could be one of the keys that uncover a new tourist revenue stream for the area.
“People have to think of this as a kayaking destination,” said Melissa Johnson, general manager for South Coast Paddling Company in Ocean Springs. “(This city) tends to be the sort of place that enjoys the outdoors and the arts. Kayaking is a good fit.”
Johnson and her colleagues have seen the Gulf Coast tourist industry scuttled by Hurricane Katrina, buffeted by the economic downturn and left floundering from the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that ruptured an underwater pipeline and spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was far from anticipated when South Coast launched its first kayak tour last October. Johnson said the company was projected to be a sensation by offering guided tours up and down Mississippi’s many coastal waterways, combining recreation with education by giving “’yakers” a front row seat to all that the salty and sunny habitat has to offer, from its Gothic bayous to its brackish estuaries.
“You start a new business and you hope for the best and you plan against the contingencies,” Johnson said. Raised in Mobile, Ala., and holding degrees in both fine arts and teaching, Johnson worked as a freelance journalist and docent for the Mary C. O’Keefe Center for Arts & Education in Ocean Springs. She said she spent several years “kicking around” the idea of starting a kayaking tours company with fellow enthusiast and professional guide Paul Nettles.
Johnson’s love for the community and the outdoors brought her in touch with coastal ecologists Cynthia Ramseur and Leah Bray and their environmental consulting firm Natural Capital Development. “After Katrina there were three to four eco-tourism businesses and we needed another kayak business,” Bray said. “We couldn’t get anybody to take the bait, so we finally decided to do it ourselves.”
South Coast offers everything from customizable family reunion or field trip day packages to overnight self-guided trips up the Pascagoula River or out to Deer Island. “We didn’t get started till late (2009) but we had some business and made it through the winter,” Johnson said. “We had a bang up March. It really showed us what we had hoped to expect starting into the spring and summer.”
Then the bottom fell out.
In addition to killing 11 crewmen, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill capsized the Gulf Coast’s dependence on summer tourist traffic. South Coast clients began canceling kayak trips in the weeks following the disaster, as a colossal oil slick traveled to the ocean surface and towards the shoreline. By July, business at South Coast Paddling Company had swung from prodigious to lackluster. “There just are not any tourists down here anymore,” Johnson said. “(The spill) has put a big crimp in the way we had projected that this would go.”
“There hasn’t been as much oil as people anticipated, but most people are still not wanting to get out in it,” Johnson said. “What has happened is the local residents have experienced a sort of malaise. They aren’t doing their usual things — mostly people are a little bit stunned and worried and some of them frankly don’t have the funds to do things.”
“It’s been a struggle,” said Bray. “Some days are harder than others, but we really do believe in what we’re doing. We try to surround ourselves with people who are excited about that work. We have way too much personal stake in making it work now.”
It is that enthusiasm that has kept South Coast and Natural Capital afloat in spite of a desperate situation. Johnson said she is still banking on the belief that kayaking is a reasonable and accessible way for locals and vacationers to get into the water and into places where motorboats cannot go. “You can sidle along the salt marshes and see wading birds up close and they aren’t frightened away because you don’t have a big old motor making noise,” Johnson said.
Other advantages that can sustain South Coast is that kayaking is a portable, low-maintenance activity and can be done year round in the Gulf Coast climate.
“There’s a need here,” Johnson said. “People are kayaking over in Florida and up in the Great Lakes. They are white water kayaking all through the West and the Southeast and there are some great clubs in Louisiana and Alabama. Mississippi is a little slow off the block in this respect. Kayaking is growing across the country and people would like to do this.