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    Pinellas tourism goes back to nature

    An urban county hopes to lure visitors by touting nature walks and sightseeing cruises.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


    In a culture that embraces the Internet and high technology, tourism experts have found that it's nature that sells -- and keeps selling.

    It's called ecotourism, and it has grown into a worldwide vacation phenomenon.

    And even though Pinellas County has precious little wilderness left, it is not ignoring this powerful longing for nature. Millions are being poured into nature-based attractions.

    "Pinellas is the most densely populated county in Florida, but when you look at the whole park system and the stewardship of the natural environment, that's one of our strong points," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We have been promoting this destination for nature-based tourism for many years because of the opportunity to enjoy the beaches, the Pinellas Trail and all of the parks."

    Ecotourism can boost a local economy because ecotourists tend to stay longer than regular visitors, said Lynnaire Sheridan of the Vermont-based International Ecotourism Society, a trade group. Ecotourists also tend to contribute money for the conservation effort.

    "The difference between an ecotourist and a regular tourist is ecotourists want to learn more about the place they are visiting and contribute to the conservation on the natural surroundings," Sheridan said. "Ecotourism offers a deeper travel experience."

    According to monthly tourist surveys, one of Pinellas' main attractions is its natural habitat. Based on that, the county in the mid 1990s began packing brochures and travel guides with pictures and descriptions of nature.

    "When almost nine out of 10 people coming to this destination cite that an influential factor in choosing this destination is its clean, unspoiled environment, that's a really strong message," Ketterhagen said. "Our whole marketing program reflects that."

    Tourists like to mix their stay at the beach with visits to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium or nature walks in Fort De Soto Park or Caladesi Island, which attracts on a busy day about 700 visitors who take a ferry to the island.

    Brian Smith, the county's planning director, said not only does the county's ecotourism focus boost the economy, but it also raises public awareness of the need to protect the environment and the need to spend tax dollars for that effort.

    "What the county is trying to do is really focus on ecotourism," Smith said. "Even though we are an urban county, we have a lot of environmental areas close to us and accessible. If you get out of your car and get into the environment, you will see that there is a lot of the environment to be appreciated."

    There are several big-ticket projects geared toward increasing the public's access to nature. Among the largest is in Largo, where the county has budgeted $25-million for the Florida Botanical Gardens at the 182-acre Pinewood Cultural Park. The first stage of the project is scheduled to open in December.

    The project will feature a 60-acre native Florida garden containing only the plants that have grown in the state since the 1500s, said Judy Yates, director of the Pinellas County Extension Services and overseer of the garden project.

    "It will be awesome," she said. "We will show as many Florida plants as we can."

    Of course, Yates acknowledges, the purists who think of ecotourism as a trip to the Galapagos Islands may scoff at the notion that spending a few hours at a botanical garden would qualify as ecotourism.

    "For us in Pinellas County, that's probably ecotourism at its height," Yates said."Where are you going to find that many acres in Pinellas where you can get lost in the woods?"

    To avoid such confusion, Yates uses the term "nature-based tourism" instead of ecotourism to describe what is offered in Pinellas.

    "One reason botanical gardens fit into ecotourism is ecotourism is supposed to bring awareness of the ecosystem," Yates said. "In Pinellas, we are looking at nature and trying to give people some insight on the very best that we have."

    Another new attraction is heading for Tarpon Springs, where a cruise ship is expected to soon offer daily, narrated nature observation trips to Anclote Key.

    Included in the 90-minute cruise would be an explanation of the area's ecology and history. The plans also call for the crew to drop a net overboard each cruise and scoop up a sampling of whatever wildlife is on hand. This will be put temporarily into an observation tank for passengers' closer examination. The catch then will be released.

    "This is absolutely the best place to do this," said Suzanne McEvoy, vice president of the Massachusetts-based Sun Line Cruises. "We think the beauty down here is outstanding, and we wanted to do something different than our competitors."

    The company plans to open a ticket office on Dodecanese Boulevard by mid November and offer cruises on the 60-passenger Island Star.

    Walter Fufidio, Tarpon Springs' planning and zoning director, said the city's Greek heritage and historical flavor are the city's main tourist attractions. But Tarpon Springs also has the potential for ecotourism.

    "We are an obvious candidate for heritage tourism, but there are definite possibilities for ecotourism here," Fufidio said. "(Ecotourism) is relatively new in the city, and we expect it to be part of our future."

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