Becoming a Better Ecotour Provider

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On Tuesday afternoon, the Sand Paper joined a group of ecotour operators who were taking part in the first-ever ‘Ecotour Provider Environmental Education Program’, where kayaking, sightseeing and other back bay guides voluntarily agreed to spend four Tuesdays in a row learning more about the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve that provides them their livelihoods and how to incorporate even more sustainable practices into their businesses.

“We are so happy to have had 28 people – 10 of whom completed all four days and received a certificate – who took time out of their busy weeks to spend all afternoon for four Tuesdays in a row to learn how to be better ecotour operators,” said John Kiseda, Education Director for Lee County Parks and Recreation. “Since the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve was the state’s first aquatic preserve, we thought it only fitting that we have the first program for ecotour operators,” added Preserve Manager Cheryl Clark.

The program, which was offered by the Florida Coastal Office and Visit Florida, featured three ‘lecture style’ presentations at the Preserve’s office next to Bonita Bills and one hands-on back bay boat tour.

The program began on April 5th with a presentation on the Estero Bay watershed’s history and geological features by Emily Porter of Rookery Bay; the ecology and conservation efforts of the Preserve by Clark and information about the Estero Bay Buddies Citizen Support Organization by Terry Cain.

On day two – April 12 – participants listened to an ecological assessment of Estero Bay from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Dr. Jeff Schmid and learned how to responsibly view wild dolphins from Jessica Powell, a biologist with the Natural Marine Fisheries Service.

Day three was the boat trip of Estero Bay with the program’s staff and Tonya Zadrozny, Biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and on day four – the final day – Kiseda worked on tying all the information presented to the group together by talking about ecotour provider sustainability best practices.

“Ecotourism is defined as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and sustain the well being of local people that involves interpretation and education’,” Kiseda said. “Sustainability is defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs’.”

John talked about how ecotourism fits in the center where society, the economy and the environment meet, and told the group of the various sites where they can learn more and become certified as ecotour operators – something they can then market to prospective tourists, many of whom will chose a certified operator over others they aren’t sure about.

“The International Ecotourism Society, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism (Florida SEE),” are all sites you can visit, though I recommend Florida SEE as they certify locally,” Kiseda said. “The goal of the Florida SEE Certification Program is to certify responsible Eco-tour Providers who contribute to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of Florida.”

Kiseda explained that businesses can sign up for certification at FloridaSEE’s website, www.floridasee.org, where they will find a self-assessment checklist that includes both core and bonus criteria. Core criteria must be 100% met before applications can be submitted, something with which Florida SEE members are willing to help or people can attend one of their monthly educational webinars.

“Once the applications are received, Florida SEE will contact the business to set up an interview, followed by an anonymous site visit, follow-up and review,” he said. “Four levels of certification can be achieved depending on bonus criteria.”

After Kiseda finished speaking, Stuart Spoede, the FWC officer who regularly patrols Estero Bay talked about how ecotour operators can help him by taking a video or copying down the registration numbers of boats seen violating the rules by speeding through seagrass areas and harassing wildlife.

Nancy McPhee, Product Development Manager for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, brought the program to a close by offering tips for ecotour providers to market themselves.

At the end, 10 participants were given certificates for attending all four days of the program: Maureen Goranson, Andrea Jones and Laura Paradiso of Good Time Charters; Scott Hall of Fish Tale Marina; Connie Langman of GAEA Guides; Tim Martell and Erik Bush of Manatee Guides; Vince McGrath of Pink Shell Marina Resort and Spa; Marilyn O’Dea of Ostego Bay and Sissel Robertson of Krazy Woman Kayaks.

eco tour class, fort myers beach
Participants receiving a “Certificate of Recognition” for having completed all four classes included 
(l to r): Marilyn O’Dea (Ostego Bay Foundation), Laura Paradiso (Goodtime Charters), Maureen Goranson (Goodtime Charters), Scott Hall (Fish Tale Marina), Andrea James (Goodtime Charters), Erik Brush (Manatee Guides), Tim Martell (Manatee Guides), Connie Langmann (GAEA Guides), Vince McGrath (Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina) and Sissel Robertson (Crazy Women Kayaks). Photo provided by Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

“We are pleased with the turnout though we would have liked to see some jet ski tour operators participate – there were none of those,” Clark said to us afterwards. “But we’re going to make it an annual thing and hopefully some of those folks will join us next year. We may also reach out to other groups as well, as this was specifically designed for ecotour operators on Estero Bay only.”

Keri Hendry Weeg