Back to Nature–Again

Kent takes its ecotourism industry to new heights.

An osprey flies off with dinner.

Looking for ecotourism? Kent County is your place. From world-class birding to biking and beyond, there’s something for everyone, locals and visitors alike.

Despite an abundance of natural resources, ecotourism—a booming industry regionally, nationally and globally—has not come naturally to Kent County.

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“Even though ecotourism is nothing new and there are Third World countries whose existence depends on it, it is a fairly new concept for Kent County,” says Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism Corp. “People have been doing ecotourism for years. They just haven’t put a label on it.”

Kent County Tourism often refers to it as “nature based-tourism,” and the Delaware Tourism Office refers to it as “outdoor recreation” on its website.

Though people may call it other things or describe it in slightly different ways, most definitions of ecotourism share strong threads. Delaware tourism director Tim Morgan sums it up this way: “Ecotourism basically allows you to experience the natural environment without harming it.”

So what’s the best way to experience nature in Kent County? The area’s natural attractions are plentiful,

They include the Delaware Bay coastline, Killen’s Pond State Park, several county and city parks, Delaware 9—newly designated a Delaware Scenic Byway—and numerous biking and walking paths.

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Features that were new as of last year include the state’s DuPont Nature Center near Slaughter Beach and kayaking-ecotouring expeditions with Return to Nature Outfitters.

“People take for granted what they have around them and then go to some exotic place to see nature,” says Jon Wickert, who leads kayaking tours along the St. Jones and Mispillion rivers, as well as Silver Lake in Dover. “Just open your mind,” he says. “It’s here.”

Sunrise at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Photograph by Tim Williams

Of all the natural attractions in Kent County, however, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is the centerpiece. The 16,000-acre refuge is four-fifths tidal marsh that is home to a wide array of species. Birdwatchers and outdoor enthusiasts travel from far, far away to visit. “The refuge draws people from the four corners of the country and internationally,” says refuge manager Terry Villanueva.

One of the biggest events at the refuge is the annual spring migration of shorebirds, which stop to feed on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay.

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“The Delaware Bay has the second highest concentration of spring migratory shorebirds in North America,” says Villanueva. “You’d have to go to the Copper River Delta in Alaska to see more.”

Occurring from the first of May until mid-June, thousands of shorebirds such as red knots, ruddy turnstones and sanderlings from as far as South America stop along the Delaware Bay to feed before their journey continues as far northward as the Arctic.

The annual stop of shorebirds—unique to the region—is of immense interest to nature enthusiasts. New Jersey has capitalized on migration and developed a strong birding tourism industry. As far back as 1990, a study indicated that the Cape May, New Jersey, area, at the mouth of Delaware Bay, reaped $10 million a year in revenue from bird watchers and ecotourists, according to Small.

“New Jersey harnessed it,” she says. “We have the same birds on this side of the bay. We just haven’t put it together and packaged it.”

One new feature that will add to the area’s ecotourism package is the DuPont Nature Center. At the mouth of the Mispillion River on the Delaware Bay, it opened to visitors in 2007. The center, with its observation deck and viewing scopes, is on one of the most significant horseshoe crab spawning grounds in the state. Visitors literally have a bird’s eye view of the spring migration and feeding of shorebirds.

Ecotourism, however, is more than just getting outdoors and back to nature. Economically, it is big business. Small cites a 2006 Outdoor Industry Foundation study that found ecotourism contributed $730 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

Bird watchers do their thing at the DuPont NatureCenter near Slaughter Beach
Photograph by Dawn Webbs

A recent study of the economic impact of national wildlife refuges by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service really drove home some points in Kent County. The study found that $1.7 billion in total economic activity during fiscal 2006 was generated by recreational use of refuges. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County was singled out for having 271,000 visitors that year who returned $23.38 for every $1 in budgeted expenditures. Of the visitors that year, 210,000 were from out of state, says Small. “Those are people who are coming to Delaware and they’re spending money.”

Packaging and marketing the county’s ecotourism activities is one of the key components to its economic growth. Most in the local tourism industry agree that efforts need to be made beyond the boundaries of county lines to be successful. Kent County Tourism and others are working with state and regional tourism organizations to enhance overall ecotourism marketing efforts.

On the state level, an ecotourism task force was created. With representatives from all three counties and the public and private sectors, the Delaware Ecotourism Statewide Committee meets quarterly to encourage cooperative endeavors, Morgan says.

Another concrete example of a cooperative effort was the recent collaboration between the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Delaware Audubon Society and Delmarva Ornithological Society to create the Delaware Birding Trail. Its map designates stops at 27 birding hotspots throughout the state. It is available at state parks and the Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges.

Kent County also is working with DLITE (Delmarva’s Low Impact Tourism Experience), an alliance of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as tourism representatives, to market the entire Delmarva Peninsula to nature enthusiasts.

In April DLITE will promote a birding weekend at locations across the peninsula. The weekend will feature trips and events as far north as Kent County for the first time. Jim Rapp, executive director of DLITE, is effusive in his enthusiasm for this collaborative effort. He predicts continued growth with low impact on the environment and a high impact on the economy.

Kayaking on the Murderkill River with Return to
Nature Kayaking and Eco-Touring.

“Birders, cyclists, nature tourists—typically they come with money,” Rapp says. “They spend money while they’re here. They’re taking pictures, and when they leave, what they’ve left is dollars in our hotels, restaurants and gas stations.”

Tourism officials have different theories for the increased popularity of nature-based activities. Rapp contends that humans are programmed to hunger for a connection to nature. It’s called “biophilia,” what he defines as “an innate desire to be near living things.” In today’s culture, “we spend the majority of our time in a box looking at a box,” he says.

Small echoes these sentiments. “Everybody’s working a 75-hour work week. It’s an awakening,” she says. “They’re making time for outdoor activities.”

Villanueva sums it up. “We just need that opportunity to connect with nature and stop and slow down.”

Many view Kent County’s slow entry into the ecotourism arena as an advantage. Rapp believes Kent County and Delmarva can learn from what others have already successfully created. “We can reap the benefits of their work,” he says.

“When people finally hear about us we’ll be the new destination,” Small says. “We’re the new undiscovered ecotreasure.”

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