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Bird Watching

SPI committed to becoming ecotourism destination

November 5, 2007 - 11:45PM

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — The Island considers ecotourism a niche market worthy of more emphasis, town leaders say.

In recent years, increasing attention has been directed to ways to better position this coastal community in the minds of birdwatchers, butterfly chasers and all sorts of environmentally interested travelers, officials said.
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"Ten years ago, when you went to a city meeting, you could go through a whole meeting and never hear one word about the beach or our ecology,” Alderwoman Tara Rios Ybarra said. robin

That’s changing, she said.

Among the advances is the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. When completed, it will become the ninth site of the World Birding Center.

The 50-acre site is under construction just south of the SPI Convention Centre. The opening is planned for late 2008 or early 2009.

Other changes are in the works. In the last couple years, the town has launched a series of special events and public relations efforts, including an Ecotourism Summit, first proposed by Rios-Ybarra and launched in 2006.

Other special events have included a Sea Life Day to teach beachgoers about coastal flora and fauna as well as resources for helping distressed wildlife.

In 2005, South Padre Island joined the Bahia Grande restoration program as a municipal partner.

The town has also organized pick-ups for recyclable items twice monthly and authorized code enforcers to distribute $5 vouchers for people seen around town collecting litter.

Several officials have helped create an anti-litter campaign, and Alderwoman JoAnn Evans pushed for revisions to the handling of commercial and residential dumpsters to help prevent problems with wind scattering trash or eyesores along the streets.

Recently, Evans also started a native plant of the month program to educate residents about species that grow well on the Island.

“In the last year, we saw the butterfly garden (built by volunteers and the town) go in,” Evans added. “The butterflies are as much a part of ecotourism as the birds.”

Evans also hopes to obtain official membership status for the town with the Keep America Beautiful program, which would provide grant opportunities. South Padre Island is currently registered in the program through the SPI Garden Club, she said.

Even town committees such as the Bay Area Task Force and the Beach and Dune Task Force are generating more programs and recommendations to improve the town’s environment.

The Chamber of Commerce has implemented a volunteer program called Random Acts of Green to help landscape intersections across town, with an emphasis on native plants.

“The Island is looking for ways to become greener,” Evans said. birds

She added that the town’s ordinances have a special provision that allows property owners not to mow lots during certain months of the year that coordinate with birding migrations. The provision helps create shelter and habitat for fatigued migrating birds.

These efforts and others, some say, are examples of the Island’s commitment to that change.

“The goal is that we’re not just saying we’re an ecotourism destination,” Rios-Ybarra said. “Instead, we’re becoming one.”

Tourists do place an importance on the environment, said Dan Quandt, the executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I think there is a greater emphasis on ecotourism when you look at studies that ask what people are interested in,” Quandt said. “In the old days, people loaded the kids in the station wagon and took them somewhere. Now, people want certain experiences, such as experiencing culture.”

One of the highest priorities for many tourists after the beach is ecotourism, Quandt said. People want to go where they can see nature.

“Ecotourism is obviously just a critical part of life here,” Quandt said. “It starts with the beach, and we have approximately 400 different species of birds that come through here.”

South Padre Island doesn’t single out niche markets for advertising campaigns, whether its ecotourism, fishing or weddings, Quandt said.

“However, in the majority of our ads, there’s always at least one picture that promotes ecotourism or nature tourism,” he said.

Also, Island officials have never ranked the strength of niche markets, but ecotourism, fishing, watersports, weddings and other draws are important pieces of the Island’s overall economy.

Still, the CVB does have ways to promote nature tourism, more specifically. The Island’s CVB participates in a Rio Grande Valley nature advertising cooperative, which promotes ecotourism in the entire region.

“For example, this year the coop hosted 19 journalists, generating more than a million dollars of publicity for the Rio Grande Valley,” Quandt said.

The journalists come from throughout the world, with many from European countries. British journalism trips to the Valley have increased 20 percent over the previous year through the nature cooperative, Quandt said.

Building ecotourism doesn’t necessarily start with advertising though. Rather, it starts with maintaining the beach and other natural areas, Quandt said.

The panel of experts at the town’s first Ecotourism Summit echoed that idea, saying that the first step to promoting ecotourism would be to eliminate litter, Rios-Ybarra said.

“How can we claim to be an eco-friendly city when we’re not recycling or picking up our garbage?” she said.

The goal, Evans said, is to be “clean and green.”

And wildlife programs, such as those by Sea Turtle Inc., attract thousands of tourists each year. This year, South Padre Island highlighted the sea turtle nesting season with a series of events called Sea Turtle Days, which was first organized by residents.

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