COLLEGE STATION – Sixteen people from the U.S. and Canada involved in nature tourism recently returned from the annual Texas AgriLife Extension Service “Ecotourism Field Course for Professionals” in Costa Rica, said Miles Phillips, with the recreation, park and tourism sciences department at Texas A&M University in College Station.
“Participants included tour company owners, landowners, city officials and consultants,” said Phillips, an AgriLife Extension nature tourism specialist who leads the international field course program. “They represented not only Texas, but also Minnesota, Iowa and South Carolina. Plus we also had some participants from Canada.”
Phillips said the field course is “a top-notch educational experience that includes interesting activities for the participants while providing first-hand knowledge” of various successful nature-tourism operations in that country.
“During the program, we visit such locations as diversified farms, private forest preserves, national parks and private outfitters,” he said. “Representatives of the businesses we visit speak to the group about their experience and answer questions about how their operations work and what makes them successful.”
Phillips said the program uses the services of a full-time, local certified naturalist tour guide and provides a private bus and driver.
“In addition to the educational sessions that included presentations and discussion with local business representatives, this year’s participants visited four lodging facilities and had seven different tourism experiences,” he said. “These included forest canopy zip-line operations, coastal boating tours, guided forest walks, birding, organic farm tours, volcano viewing and hot springs, community crafts and more.”
Phillips said one of the eye-opening aspects of this year’s field course was the overwhelming popularity of one of Costa Rica’s national parks and the prominence and popularity of certified wildlife guides in that country.
“We arrived at Manuel Antonio National Park before 8 a.m. and there were literally hundreds of people already lined up and waiting for the park to open,” he said. “It was amazing to see all those people anxious to get inside so they could hike, watch wildlife and be involved in other nature tourism activities.”
Phillips said a major goal of the field course program is to provide participants with additional insights on how they may enhance their own operations and their communities by introducing higher-value experiences to attract regional and international visitors.
Earlier this year, the President Obama signed an executive order and developed initiatives intended to help increase the amount of travel and tourism in the U.S. A Jan. 19 White House press office release stated that “the travel and tourism industry projects that more than 1 million American jobs could be created over the next decade if the U.S. increased its share of the international travel market.” It also stated that U.S. Department of Commerce figures showed international travel yielded $134 billion in U.S. exports in 2010.
A 2006 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed about 6 million people in Texas participated in some form of recreation involving fish and wildlife during that year. Anglers, hunters and wildlife viewers generated $8.91 billion in retail sales, creating $4.67 billion in salaries and wages and supporting 139,404 jobs.
“Costa Rica is one of the world’s most successful ecotourism and sustainable tourism destinations, so it provides a wealth of information on what does and doesn’t work when it comes to boosting travel and tourism,” Phillips said. “We want U.S. nature tourism to be even more successful and compete with other nature and sustainable tourism businesses worldwide. We can learn a lot from a country that is a long-standing world leader in the ecotourism and agritourism business.”
Phillips said an educational package of audio and video podcasts is being created so that those who cannot attend the field course may still learn more about nature tourism operations in Costa Rica.
Phillips said the next international field course likely will take place Jan. 30-Feb. 6, 2013. For local programs and more information on nature tourism, go to http://naturetourism.tamu.edu or contact Phillips at 979-845-1023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.