Ecotourism: learn as you explore the natural beauty of the First Coast Region

For years individual families would gather their belongings, get in the family car, head toward the highway, and make their way to Florida for an unforgettable fun family vacation. Children would constantly ask their parents along the way, “are we there yet?!” Most likely, these families were heading toward one of the traditional theme parks associated with summer family fun in Florida! That picture changed drastically in March of 2020 when theme parks and other attractions in Florida were forced to shut down due to a global pandemic.

With theme parks and other entertainment venues shutting down for weeks, and in some cases months, many families were left wondering what they could do to pass the time and have some family vacation fun. The answer to that question was, ECOTOURISM!

What is ECOTOURISM, you ask? Well, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is often defined as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.

With ecotourism now on the mind of so many families as a fun vacation option, the trip down the interstate to Florida offered a much different type of vacation destination. Vacation destinations such as St. Augustine and Palm Coast were now being populated by tourists looking for the enriching experience of ecotourism since many of the traditional tourism attractions were closed.

Join me as I head south on I-95 and discuss unique ecotourism destinations in northeast Florida.

Our first stop on our ecotourism adventure after entering the great state of Florida is St. Augustine, located in St. John’s County. St. Augustine, known as the nation’s oldest city, offers a beautiful, picturesque view of the world-renowned Historic Coast. When visiting St. Augustine, many visitors may not even realize that they are close to such a variety of ecotourism attractions and activities. One would be hard-pressed to find an ecotourism attraction more impactful to the St. Augustine area than the St. Augustine Eco Tours.

St. Augustine Eco Tours is locally owned and operated by Captain Zach McKenna, a Flagler College alumnus. St. Augustine Eco Tours is a perfect example of an ecotourism attraction, as it infuses a portion of its profits right back into the local community to aid local marine wildlifethroughconservation, research, rescue and education programs.This ecotourismattraction is truly an ecotourist dream, as the staff receives hundreds of hours of training and hands-on experiences in order to provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience while maintaining the integrity of the local ecosystem.

St. Augustine Eco Tour’s is also actively contributing to federally permitted, non-invasive scientific study of the long-term health of the local Bottlenose Dolphin population. Flagler college joined this research initiative in 2011, giving science majors the opportunity of a lifetime to study wild dolphins in their backyard.

The next stop on our ecotourism adventure is Palm Coast, located in FlaglerCounty.The Palm Coast Parks and Recreation Department oversees 13 parks and recreational amenities, as well as over a hundred miles of trails. Kim Brown, Recreation Supervisor of Marketing said, “As a department, one of the pillars in our mission is the environment.”Ecotourism offers a way to connect recreation to the environment.By offering programming and events that focus on the natural ecology of the area,residents and visitors alike canget outside and enjoy nature. Palm Coastcreates educational opportunities about conservation and stewardship.The idea is that if the Palm Coast Parks and Recreational Department can encourage just one participant to fall in love with kayaking,they may be much more likely to want to help protect the waterways, marshes and mangroves.

Amy Lukasik, Tourism Development Director of Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches,described Flagler County as an eco-tourism destination for folks looking to get away from it all with its 19 miles of beaches, natural parks and pristine waterways.Having these natural resources in combination with a low-density population, Flagler County is a magnet to visitors looking for a safe and uncrowded environment.Lukasik also added that once travel restrictions related to Covid-19 were lifted, Flagler County’s ecotourism was able to bounce back relatively quickly in comparison to their neighbors to the north and south. The ecotourism in the Flagler County area also helped hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants break sales records and business boomlike never before.

To sum up Flagler County’s ecotourism opportunities, one would be hard pressed to find such a similar comparison in the state of Florida.One example would be the county’s 45,000 acres of unfragmented, continuous coastal wetlands.

Chris Kelley, owner of Ripple Effect Ecotours, describes Flagler County as having “one of the most pristine coastal habitats and some of the broadest natural resource conservation you’ll find anywhere in coastal Florida.”Guided kayak tours, set out from Marineland Marina and cross the Matanzas River until they reach a lagoon that’s seven miles wide and a foot deep.That lagoon habitat hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. The area is one of the “last fully functioning ecosystems that you’ll find anywhere in Florida. Kelley also states that “one of the most remote, quietest, pristine hyper fertile estuaries that you’ll find in the country is here in Flagler County.”

With Covid-19 still impacting the global tourism landscape, ecotourism offers a great alternative to some of the traditional tourism attractions available in the state of Florida.Thepandemic has had a dual effect on recreational amenities.While indoor recreation has been challenging to reinstitute,outdoorecotourism amenities have become more popular than ever.Ecotourism destinations have been able to quickly utilize their resources to safely open. KimBrown commented that greenspaces, trails and socially distanced sports have been able to support the physical and mental health ofvisitors while providing them with vital community services.

Kim Brown -Palm Coast Parks and Recreation
Amy Lukasik - Director of Tourism, Flagler County