Most people would consider a Serengeti safari to be the trip of a lifetime, so Delawareans might be surprised to learn that we have a Serengeti of our own right here.
“When you look at what is internationally significant as far as wildlife in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s the Delaware Bay,” says Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship for the New Jersey Audubon Society.
“The Serengeti represents superabundance and diversity, an amazing natural resource, and that’s what we have in the Delaware Bay. It’s the foremost area in the country for shorebirds, and then there are the migratory waterfowl, the songbirds and the raptors. There is the amazing diversity of life present in the estuarine environment—underwater, above water and on the beaches.”
For more than a decade, the American Bird Conservancy has sponsored an annual trip to Kent County to see the dramatic shorebird migration, which reaches its peak in late May, when horseshoe crabs spawn and lay eggs the birds need to eat to fuel their flights. Kent County is one of only three stateside trips taken by the American Bird Conservancy, and it is the only destination on the Eastern seaboard. Though the most dedicated birders have long known about Delaware, novice birders are only beginning to discover it. This year, its 10th in Delaware, the Delmarva Birding Weekend drew 450 people during five days in May.
Delaware’s Quiet Resorts jumped on the birding wagon in fall 2008, offering its second annual birding weekend last month. The creation in 2007 of Delaware’s first Birding Trail, mapping out 27 of the best birding sites in the state, should attract even more birders to the state.
Birders are part of a new wave of nature-based tourism, a growing specialty market that Delaware and local businesses are eager to attract. The payoff could be big. Ecotourism, a subset of nature-based tourism, contributes some $730 billion to the U.S. economy each year, and it is growing faster than any other type of tourism, at a rate of 24 percent to 30 percent a year, according to The International Ecotourism Society. The society defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people. Delaware has plenty of it to offer.
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Though Delaware does not calculate the contribution of ecotourism to the state economy specifically, travel and tourism generated an estimated $1.2 million in revenues in 2004. That revenue directly supported almost 23,000 full-time jobs, making tourism the fifth largest industry in the state.
The potential for increasing nature tourism in Delaware is impressive. According to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife watching increased 13 percent from 1996 to 2006. The number of people who observe wildlife is now double that of anglers and nearly six times that of hunters. Wildlife watching generates revenues equal to those generated by all spectator sports, amusement parks and arcades, non-hotel casinos, bowling centers and skiing facilities combined, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Ecotourism is not a fad,” says Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism. “It’s really a lifestyle, and it was a niche that was begging to be satisfied.”
Nature-based tourism is not just about wildlife watching. It also refers to cycling, hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, surfing, kiteboarding and other types of low-impact outdoor recreation. “We have just begun to massage nature-based tourism opportunities in Delaware,” Small says.
Delaware started to push nature-based tourism around 1996, says Jim Falk, associate director of the Delaware Sea Grant Program. After that first surge, nature-based tourism took a backseat to other efforts until Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences came along. DLITE was formed in Maryland in the 1990s to promote ecotourism across the peninsula. Delaware became involved in the early part of this decade. “With DLITE, we are beginning to see another surge for nature-based tourism,” Falk says. “We’ll see if we can make this an income generator.”
Executive director Jim Rapp calls DLITE an economic development organization. It works with partners in the public and private sector to create an economic reason to preserve natural and historic areas on the Delmarva Peninsula.
“DLITE founder Buddy Jenkins saw that ecotourism was coming along,” Rapp says. “He also recognized that because of the way the peninsula is divided up politically, we would need to work together across state and county boundaries to package trips regionally for the long-distance cyclist, the kayaker and the birder. We’ve done a good job in Delaware of preserving natural spaces and history. Linking those together and publicizing those resources online is the next wave for bringing in tourists to see what Delaware has to offer.”
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Rapp is convinced that investment in ecotourism will be well rewarded. He points to the 2006 Banking on Nature report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which shows that each dollar invested in Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge netted returns of more than $23. Out-of-state residents accounted for more than 95 percent of the $20.2 million in economic effect attributable to Bombay Hook.
To achieve its conservation and economic goals, DLITE encourages tourism partners in Delaware, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia to market the region together. The area’s history and natural environment do not stop at county or state boundaries, Rapp says.
In addition to DLITE’s efforts, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary launched the website ecoDelaware.com in 2008, a Delaware-specific ecotourism marketing venue funded in part by the Delaware Economic Development Office.
And there are more events and destinations to plug than ever before. Two years ago the DuPont Nature Center opened at the Mispillion Harbor Refuge, one of the state’s best areas for viewing migrating shorebirds. Bethany Beach opened a Nature Center and wetlands trail in June.
Not surprisingly, kayaking and other water sports are among Delaware’s top draws. “One of our goals is to educate people about the value of low-impact tourism,” says Mitch Mitchell, owner of Coastal Kayak, which offers kayak and sailboat rentals in Fenwick Island State Park and guided kayak tours in the ocean and bays. One of several kayaking companies in Sussex, Coastal Kayak opened 15 years ago, and the business has grown every year since, Mitchell says. Kent County got its own kayaking provider a few years ago, when Return to Nature Kayak opened.
Delaware has a growing reputation as a cycling destination, too, with the addition of trails such as the Junction and Breakwater Trail, unveiled in 2006, that connects Cape Henlopen and Rehoboth Beach. “The trail is light years away from Route 1. It’s totally natural, with no motorized vehicles allowed,” says Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism. Trails and other improvements earned Delaware an honorable mention in the League of American Bicyclists 2009 Bicycle Friendly States, helping Delaware race from 31st in the 2008 state rankings to ninth in 2009.
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Delaware State Parks has also evolved to keep up with trends in outdoor pursuits. Hiking was once the most popular activity in state parks, but now visitors are mountain biking, kayaking, bird watching and geocaching, says chief of programming Ray Bivens. Geocaching is an outdoor scavenger hunt to locate waterproof containers using the containers’ geographic coordinates and a GPS unit. “It’s surprising how much geocachers will spend on their trips and how far they’ll travel to do it,” Bivens says.
Several years ago Delaware introduced a race series in all three counties to capitalize on an even newer outdoor sport, Adventure Racing. Each Adventure Series event is different, but they always include several activities, such as orienteering, mountain biking and canoeing in one race.
Delaware’s state parks attract a healthy number of out-of-state visitors. Non-residents account for 37 percent of campers statewide and as much as 80 percent at Delaware Seashore State Park. The state parks are continuing to add more ecotourism options, which include naturalist-guided tours by pontoon, kayak and foot.