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Manatees mean big business

With new restrictions on the horizon, the challenge will be to protect manatees without hurting the economy.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Even the most casual observer with no prior knowledge of west Citrus County would have a difficult time missing just how much area residents are in love with the West Indian manatee.

From one end of the county to the other, observers can find manatees in huge murals painted on buildings, depicted in city welcome signs and splashed across billboards as business names.

Dive shops and marinas derive tremendous amounts of business, especially in the winter season, from the hordes of people who visit the area because it is the only place in Florida where businesses market swimming with manatees.

Hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns provide lodging; restaurants feed the hungry swimmers; gift shops provide another place for tourists to spend time and money.

Although recent figures are not available, the economic impact of the tourism business related to manatees was thought to be at least $7-million seven years ago.

The manatee tour business continues to boom, even though the government has imposed some restrictions. Now new restrictions are on the horizon, as federal and local officials talk about creating the first manatee sanctuary on the Homosassa River at the Blue Waters near the origin of the river.

Some in the tour business acknowledge that something more needs to be done to protect the area's "golden goose," but they want to be sure the protection is done in a way that still allows people to interact with manatees. That, they say, is how to build a strong contingent of supporters who will want to protect manatees for future generations.

"I believe that education through interaction is the way to go," said Scott Faulkenberg, who operates the marina and canoe and kayak rental businesses at the Homosassa Riverside Resort.

He said people in his business know that, although new rules might appear to hurt them, keeping the manatees safe is key to keeping tourism-related businesses healthy as well.

"Let's face it, we're not based on industry here like factories. Tourism is our industry," Faulkenberg said.

"Today, if we did not have the manatees around, this would be a sleepy little burg that would not have the economic base we have now," said Mary Craven, who coordinates tourism for Citrus County. "A lot of people came here and bought their businesses here because of manatees."

To attract people to the area, the county happily publishes plenty of literature that shows cool, blue-gray images of the county's favorite animal as it munches on aquatic vegetation, silently drawing eco-conscious and animal-interested tourists into the area.

The manatee has been such a good selling point that recently tourism efforts have turned more toward promoting the community's other attractions to keep business up during the entire year and not just during the winter manatee migration.

Craven says manatees give the community real bragging points.

"Manatees have put us on the tourism map," she said. "I'll go to state tourism meetings and be sitting with the heads of Universal and Disney . . . and I'll say I'm from Citrus County and they look at me. Then I say "Crystal River' and they say, "Oh, manatees.' "

"It's pretty phenomenal," she said.

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