Last Tuesday, more than 30 fishermen and landowners gathered at Stella Plantation in Braithwaite for the 2013 Coastal Ecotourism Workshop, during which several Gulf Coast experts gave presentations on the benefits of a whole new kind of tourism – one that further incentivizes wetland conservation. We were there sharing information about our Louisiana Wetland Action Program. Ecotourism involves travel to natural areas with conservation and responsibility in mind, as well as support for the well-being of locals. The workshop's organizers and several experts discussed how this could be particularly profitable in the wetlands. A number of speakers, from LSU professors to an outdoors attorney, made the case for landowners to open up their properties to activities such as birdwatching and hunting. After a series of slides, attendees were taken through the plantation and given a tour of the crawfish ponds and citrus orchards that will hopefully attract visitors.
"Louisiana's wetlands are incredibly resilient, and the resources are all there," says Mississippi State Professor Darrel Jones. "Ecotourism makes both business and ecological sense." Jones says Louisiana invests $37.7 million annually into wildlife watching – which the wetlands easily provide as hotspots for migrating birds. With more and more people intrigued by our natural sponges from popular culture (notably, reality shows like "Swamp People"), they are seeing a slew of visitors these days.
The workshop also stressed the unique position of landowners: They are experts on their own areas, and sharing their stories with the public through tours and workshops would raise awareness of (and concern towards) what LSU Professor Rex Caffey calls "Louisiana's natural capital."
Making your land an ecotourism site starts with reaching out to potential partners, local groups like Audubon for potential bird- or site-seeing tours, hotels that might put your spot in a brochure, and journalists who can help publicize your area. Hiring a marketing consultant was also recommended, if you have budget for it. Independent marketing is just as successful, since nobody knows more about wetlands than a wetlands owner. Jones recommends using the internet for such promotion, specifically social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. "The key," he says, "is to present information in a very quick fashion."
The U.S. has lost more than half of its wetlands since the 1800s. Ecotourism is one more way to try to fight that trend and build back Louisiana's marshes with the most erosion (bonus: this brings in cleaner land revenue than oil and gas). The Stella Plantation workshop was geared towards agricultural landowners, but Professor Jones said he hopes that as ecotourism and knowledge of ideal wetland restoration practices grow (and funding opportunities arise), the LSU AgCenter will have workshops specifically for wetland owners. Stay tuned!