By Tammy Leytham
Wildlife watching – including birding – contributes millions of dollars each year to coastal coffers and with the new Pascagoula River Audubon Center opening in 2015, the sky’s the limit.
Because birders like to plan trips to areas where they can see multiple natural attractions, the coastal counties are poised for growth in nature-based tourism, said Dr. Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point.
“On the Mississippi Coast, we’re in the catbird seat – especially Jackson County,” LaSalle said.
In addition to the Audubon Center, Jackson County is home to the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Gulf Islands National Seashore, sites on the Coastal Birding Trail, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and other sites.
Earlier in December, the Audubon Center and Mississippi Development Authority’s Department of Tourism unveiled the installation of electronic kiosks at the state’s welcome center locations on I-10 in Waveland and Moss Point.
The devices highlight all 44 sites of the Mississippi Coast Birding Trail located throughout the southern six counties. And the involvement of MDA indicates an awareness of how much birding contributes to the economy.
Those digital kiosks are just another tool that can be used to expand and grow nature tourism in South Mississippi, LaSalle said.
“Birders have money, and they will come to areas with a lot of opportunities to view wildlife,” he said.
A birding trail survey conducted at Dauphin Island just across the state line in Alabama, for example, shows the average income of a birder at $87,800 annually. Those birders spend an average of $287 on hotel/motel expenses.
The survey also showed that 73 percent of birders will engage in and purchase local art, making artist communities like Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis particularly appealing, he said.
“You can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting an artist, and some darn good ones,” he said.
In fact, the new $1.6 million Audubon Center will house a dedicated nature art gallery.
“We don’t have a dedicated art gallery anywhere along the Gulf Coast that I know of,” LaSalle said, adding that the gallery will support local artists. “We’ll say, ‘here’s where you can go buy it,’” he said.
The 5,000-square-foot Center sits on 10 acres – some of which are wetlands. In addition to the nature art gallery, it will include an interpretive center and a botanical garden with native plants actively used in the landscaping. And there will be a boathouse so the Center can continue offering boat tours of the Pascagoula River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the United States. The boat tour is important because it’s an opportunity for visitors to view a multitude of wildlife, including migratory birds, shore and water birds, American alligators and other animals that call the river basin home.
And the Gulf Coast region is the “first place birds land in North America after crossing the Gulf on their migration north,” according to a 2013 report, making it particularly appealing to birders.
The Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy report was prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund.
It also shows that wildlife tourism revenue brings in nearly $2 billion to Mississippi each year. Wildlife tourism includes hunting and fishing, but also wildlife watching.
Birding alone generates about $13 billion in combined federal and state taxes in the U.S. each year, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report. That report also shows that nationwide in 2011, birders spent an estimated $15 billion on their trips and $26 billion on equipment.
Wildlife watching is defined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as “closely observing, photographing, and/or feeding wildlife.” In the Gulf Coast region, that includes birding and sea turtle watching, as well as alligator viewing, snorkeling and dolphin cruises.
There are 20 wildlife-watching guide businesses in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. Some of those are for other activities such as fishing or kayaking, but include birdwatching.
Jackson County is home to McCoy’s River and Swamp tours that operate out of the Audubon Center. There are also several outfitters for kayak, canoe and standup paddle board tours on local rivers, bays and bayous, as well as trips to Horn Island – part of Gulf Islands National Seashore – and Deer Island off the Biloxi coast.
LaSalle said there is a strong coalition of support for nature tourism from county and city officials, local businesses and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. With agencies working together, the area can get a bigger slice of a pretty lucrative pie. “I tell folks that nature-based tourism is one color in a color-wheel of opportunity for tourism in Mississippi. And we’re an important element,” he said. “It can grow.”
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