Ecotourism Quickly Becoming Largest Industry In Texas

Just a few years ago, "ecotourism" was not a popular term among those in the ranch community.

Ranchers tended to distrust anything with the word "eco" in it, and tourism meant strange-looking outsiders littering the roads, setting fires with cigarette butts, and breaking down fences to answer the call of nature.

Though the term still retains much of its negative connotation, more and more ranchers have found themselves looking for alternative enterprises to keep the family ranch afloat, and that has made the concept more attractive.

By the year 2000, tourism recreation is expected to be the largest industry in Texas. Currently the third largest industry in the state, tourism is already bringing in $23 billion. The U.S. Travel Data Center reports that in tax dollars alone, tourism brings $946 million to the state’s coffers each year and $704 million in local tax receipts.

Nature tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of a global travel industry, averaging some 30 percent growth annually since 1987. By the year 2000, estimates are that 18 million Texans will participate in nature tourism.

Wildlife viewing is already the number one outdoor activity in the U.S., and in 1991 Texans spent nearly one billion dollars on food, lodging and expenses for various wildlife appreciation activities. In Southeast Texas near Houston, a 1992 study at High Island bird sanctuary estimated 6000 bird watchers spent about $1.2 million to see songbirds.

Nature tourism is defined by the Texas Nature Tourism Task Force as "discretionary travel to natural areas that conserves the environmental, social and cultural values while generating an economic benefit to the local community."

More simply put, nature tourists are those who spend their time and money enjoying and appreciating a broad range of outdoor activities that minimally impact the environment. Nature tourists are mostly from the city, generally are tired of stress and traffic, and are searching for an escape. That escape is often the country.

"In terms of ecotourism, Texas is on the ground floor," says Texas Parks and Wildlife nongame program leader Matt Wagner. "Ecotourism in Texas is where hunting was 30 or 40 years ago on private lands."

Texas is leading the way nationally, and Wagner attributes the state’s leadership role to the availability of habitat for ecotourism. Because 97 percent of that potential habitat is in private ownership, he says, TP&W has long realized the importance of working hand in hand with the state’s land stewards.

TP&W, he says, wants to ensure that open space remains open space, and the best way to accomplish that is for private lands to remain in private hands. Nature tourism, Wagner notes, is a renewable nonconsumptive use of the natural resource which has the potential to provide some income to the rancher. That income, in turn, allows them to keep their land intact and hopefully ensures long-term security of the natural habitat.

Ecotourism is definitely not for everyone, but more and more private landowners are beginning to test the waters and explore the possibilities.

"It’s not the salvation for the ranch community," Wagner adds, "but it is another tool. The good thing is that you can do hunting and nature tourism."

Wagner sees nature tourism as an ideal way to educate the public on why private land is so important.

"It’s an opportunity for private landowners to show off their place, help urbanites understand why it’s important to them and their family, and that the resource is there because they take care of it."

Several positive steps have been taken in recent years that should help private landowners feel more at ease about tourists accessing their ranch. For instance, TP&W has initiated a landowner incentive program for endangered species.

The incentive money is supplied by federal funds that flow to the states for their endangered species programs. Historically, that money has been devoted to academic research primarily aimed at identifying new endangered species.

Despite some reluctance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the commission has negotiated a way to divert this money into landowner assistance programs. TP&W has a commitment of $100,000 a year for each of the next five years to award private landowners money to help them with various programs that will assist endangered species. An individual landowner is eligible for up to $10,000 in assistance.

Since the program was announced there has been a tremendous landowner response, with more than 500 phone calls to Austin and 160 applications to date. The program has already received national recognition and the federals are now considering expanding it.

Wagner says the agency is trying to get away from managing for individual species to managing habitat. Unfortunately, he notes, the biggest threat to habitat is that more and more of the larger ranches are being broken up.

"We want to prevent that breakup by providing incentives to the landowner and by promoting sustainable uses of the land," Wagner says. "And if they have to be broken up, we need to look for ways to work on a cooperative basis with several landowners."

Unlike hunting, there is no direct fee, per se, for those who wish to enjoy such nonconsumptive recreation such as birding, hiking, photography etc. However, in addition to income derived from hunting fees and a tax on firearms, TP&W also secures some of its funding through a tax on sporting goods. There is also a national effort underway to look at a tax on items that would be used for nonconsumptive recreation, and which would go back to fund additional wildlife programs.

"I believe something like this needs to happen," Wagner says. "There’s just not enough funding to go around to do all the things we need to do for wildlife, but as of yet there’s still a lot of opposition."

The first step to success for any new business venture is to write a detailed business plan, says Wagner. A business plan helps focus and organize on paper the reason for the business, what the market is, strengths and weaknesses, financial projections, etc.

He recommends writing a marketing plan with the banker in mind and including such aspects as definition of business, products/services, objectives and goals, who the prospective customer will be, how the product will be marketed, competition, and the like. Another important component to include in the plan is a financial analysis which pencils out a projected breakeven schedule.

Critical things like insurance, taxes and regulatory requirements also need to be studied and included in the business plan.

Corpus Christi-based Extension wildlife specialist Dr. Will Cohen says the way to protect assets from liability losses is to have contracts and liability releases. Another way is to keep hunting lease business separate and apart from land holding business, and finally to buy enough insurance, at least $500,000.

Other considerations for the business plan include the type of business organization; whether it is a sole proprietorship or partnership, for instance, affects tax reporting requirements. As for regulatory requirements, federal, state and local regulations can have some similarities but also lots of differences. Those beginning a new business need to be aware of these regulatory requirements.

Once the business plan is developed the next step is to refine and implement a marketing plan, says TPWD’s Wagner. The marketing plan must first identify the product and the customer. For those just getting started, the experts recommend keeping the marketing plan simple and expense at a minimum.

Wagner suggests seeking out and analyzing existing nature enterprises, especially similar ones. "Learn from the experience of others," he recommends.

Any promotion requires a certain amount of personal selling. Good logos and designs don’t have to be expensive, but they should look professional and should be creative.

Advertising is costly, so it’s important to select the appropriate media. "Good word of mouth is the best and most affordable form of advertising," experts say.

Cohen says the biggest challenge to those initiating such an enterprise is understanding the customer.

"Even if you have been lease hunting, you learn real quickly that this is a whole different clientele," Cohen says. "Ranchers and farmers are used to selling the traditional products like meat and/or crops. Then the commodity mix began to include deer, quail, and turkey. Today some ranchers are also selling fun."

The marketers of that recreation experience, Cohen notes, must understand what each client defines as fun and then tailor their product, that package deal, to reach those clients.

Cohen has established an Internet website designed to market "ecotorism." The site allows interested recreationists to locate businesses in Texas which offer hunting, birding, fishing and other outdoor activities.