Sarasota County general manager of natural resources Eric Sutton's original suggestion for the "Discover Natural Sarasota County" initiative was "Gators and Stuff."
The ecologist's intent is serious fun. Sutton's goal-and that of the consortium of representatives from government agencies including parks and recreation, Sustainable Sarasota and natural resources, as well as public and private organizations such as Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program-is to promote ecotourism to locals and tourists.
Says Sutton: "We want to come across as a seamless provider for nature-based recreation."
1. Why are we pursuing the ecotourism market now?
Recent research by the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau showed that Sarasota is perceived as a retirement community. Floridians feel as though there is not as much to do here as in other places, like Lee County. However, the environmental resources are the reason we're attractive to so many people. We already have enormous amounts of resources invested; ecotourism is just a bonus. We want to demonstrate that conserving natural resources will support the economic base and is not at odds with it.
2. Who is an ecotourist, and how has the market for ecotourism changed over the past few years?
It's not as if people are either ecotourists or not. In 2002, 66 percent of folks planning a trip to Florida included some nature activities, not including beaches. In 1998, that figure was 48 percent. Ecotourism is in the majority of trip planning, so it's big, not a niche.
3. What places are you using as models for "Discover Natural Sarasota County?"
Lee County. They have a strong program to educate visitors, lots of public relations and strong media relationships. They spend a lot of time educating local residents about providing nature-based recreation.
4. What will the top attractions be?
Myakka State Park and the canopy walks; Mote Aquarium, Sarasota Bay tours, the Pelican Man Sanctuary; some kayak experiences, Oscar Scherer Park, Crowley Nature Center, Selby Gardens, Historic Spanish Point, South Lido Park. There are lots of opportunities for canoeing and kayaking experiences in the less sensitive areas of the Myakka River. An effort is under way to develop the trails program. We'd also like to provide outdoor experiences for seniors, perhaps a tram ride to see wetlands and hammocks.
5. How will you market the area to ecotourists?
We held the annual meeting of outdoor travel writers here. We also just released a very well received boating and angling guide for parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties with information about birding and fishing opportunities, marinas and restaurants. So far, staff time has been vested in this effort. If future publicity does require more dollars, that is something that will be met collaboratively with all the other agencies who will all work together to determine the budget.