It’s been several post-Katrina years since the groups involved in ecotourism gathered to inventory natural resources and talk about how to spread the word to birdwatchers, kayakers, hunters, hikers and others.
In fact it’s been so long that ecotourism is known by a new name: nature tourism.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources hosted a Nature Tourism Summit recently in Biloxi to discuss the Coast’s unique offerings and to find ways to boost that segment of the tourism industry.
About 60 people attended, representing businesses involved in nature tourism, tourism destinations and tourism officials.
Consultants Cynthia Ramseur and Leah Bray of Natural Capital Development helped pull the meeting together “to revive the conversation” about nature tourism, Ramseur said.
“There was no real agenda other than to bring people together and have a discussion and see what was needed,” she said.
The long list of resources include Gulf Islands National Seashore’s barrier islands, the DeSoto National Forest and the greenways and blueways connecting them. Collectively, Ramseur said, “all of that represents a tremendous natural resource base in a small area.”
But the diversity of the resources can be off putting to tourists because there’s not one place to find information about all the other outdoor diversions. “Someone could spend five, 10 or 15 days in South Mississippi to see all the natural areas and wonderful things to do. But people don’t readily do that. They come and do one thing. We have a suite of activities to keep people here for days but don’t tell the story as a whole.”
Coordinating all those assets could boost the amount of money being spent already in nature tourism.
Melissa Scallan, spokesperson for the DMR, said Datu Research released a report titled “Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy” in July. Researchers looked at Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and found that wildlife tourism generates more than $19 billion annually in spending in those five states. It generates more than $5 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenues.
“In Mississippi, people spend nearly $2 billion each year on wildlife tourism. This includes hunting, fishing and wildlife watching. The state gets $209,405,946 in state and local tax revenue each year. Just an FYI — this is enough to pay the salaries of 5,154 police officers,” Scallan said.
The question to be answered is how to grow that share, Ramseur said. “How can we be the go-to place on the Gulf of Mexico for nature tourists?”
Participants are working on that as a follow up to the summit, where two major issues “kept popping up,” she said.
“One is what kind of organizational structure could service this diverse group across the Coast,” she said. “And there are so many things to talk about, so many diverse places to visit. How do you tell that story?”
A task force was formed to come up with some recommendations for the next meeting Nov. 1.
Gary Benson, manager of sports marketing for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a member of the task force.
He said he was surprised to learn about all the nature tourism offerings beyond charter fishing, kayaking and bird watching. “I didn’t know this niche tourism market,” he said, “but I realized we better start learning. We promote golf, charter fishing, amateur team sports and we’re going after the convention business but as far as this, we’re just kind of breaking into it. We’ve got to figure out what our story is and how we’re going to fund it.”
He said the CVB will help to promote the Mississippi Coast as a destination for the nature enthusiast through social media, maps and the Fun Times Guide to get the word out.
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