Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Birding Tourism

As thousands of beachgoers wake up and head to the beach around eleven in the morning, they have no idea that there was a whole different kind of tourist up hours before them roaming on these same beaches. This other tourist has been up since around six a.m. looking for birds and other wildlife on the beaches before the sun even came up. These tourists may not spend quite as much money as the beachgoers but, they are becoming a powerful economic force and contributing a great deal to the conservation of the world’s natural areas.

The Gulf of Mexico

While not all birding tourists go to the beach, these types of situations are happening all over the world. The average tourist has no idea that there are people traveling all over the world just to see birds. When many people learn that there are individuals out there that participate in this activity, they ask why anyone would spend thousands of dollars just to go look at birds. Sandy Komito, a birder and frequent birding tourist, offers an insightful explanation. "There's a build-up of anticipation. You never know: Will you find them? Won't you find them? I think I can use the word ecstatic when you do find it." While the average tourist may not understand this excitement, any birder understands what he is saying.

Ecotourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of the local people. Birding is the largest, fastest growing and most environmentally conscience group of ecotourists. Although ecotourism makes up only 5% to 10% of the tourism market, it is the fastest growing segments in the industry. While tourism as a whole only grows at a rate of 4% per year, ecotourism grows at a rate of 10% to 30% annually.

According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, 69 million Americans view, identify or photograph birds every year and the number of people who consider themselves birders have increased over 332% since 1983 making birding the fastest-growing outdoor recreation activity in the country. While this seems like a lot of people, you must remember that only about 3% to 7% of birders are considered serious or advance birders that can identify over 40 birds without a field guide. In a survey conducted at the Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport, Texas, it was also found that birders are disproportionately female, over the age of 46, college graduates and members of middle to upper income households. Given the economic status and education level of birders, they are more likely to be aware of their environmental impact and to pay to enter local protected areas as well as to pay local guides a substantial amount of money daily during their trips.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, 18 million birders take trips each yeah contributing $32 billion dollars to the economy. The birding industry also employs over 800,000 people. There are many local economies that are almost completely supported by birders that come to these cites every year to see the local specialties. Mio, Michigan is one of those cites. Every year thousands of birders come to this site to see the very rare Kirtland’s Warbler. With only 1,200 individuals of this species left in the world, it is a bird that every birder dreams of seeing. In 1993, Mio launched the Kirtland’s Warbler festival which drew in 7000 people in its first year. The two day festival drew in about $700,000 in a town where the yearly per capita income is $8000.

The state of Texas has taken birding tourism to the next level with the creation of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Texas developed this trail to encourage the conservation of the coastal wetlands that so many birders visit and to show birders that these sites, that were previously thought to be unrelated, were actually a group of sites that could be birded all in one trip. The trail was completed in 2002 and has 308 sites. In 2001, before the trail was even complete, 400,000 people had visited the sites. The development of the trail has allowed more land to be conserved in the region. One example is Paradise Ponds in Port Aransas that was developed through a grant from Texas as well as a donation of some land by a local landowner and the city council as a show of support for the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Stories such as this one give light to the kinds of great conservation that can be achieved through birding tourism. The trail also has had a significant impact on the local economies along the trail. At another site along the trail, High Island, every spring thousands of birders arrive for warbler migration. During the two month long period, birders spend between $4 million and $6 million. At another site, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, birders contribute $36.5 million to local hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other stores.

Snowy Egret

Birding tourism has also brought about conservation in Panama. Old military buildings in the former U.S. Panama Canal Zone are being turned into hotels for traveling birders. While Panama has 90 more species of birds than Costa Rica, an international birding hot spot, there are only a fraction the number of birders that visit the country. In fact, Costa Rica earns more than $400 million from American birders every year. That accounts for more than 41% of their tourism revenues. Arias de Para hopes the change that. He has opened Canopy Tower in an abandon secret U.S. radar tower. He has transformed the tower into a seven room eco-lodge. Within one year of opening, Audubon has named Canopy Tower on of the top nine eco-resorts in the world. At Canopy Tower, as well as at many of the other hotels in the region, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been showing the owners how to conserve the surrounding birding locations as well as to make trails through them.

While there are many positive attributes of birding tourism, there are some potential problems that should be discussed. One potential problem is the disruption of birds especially during nesting season. Birders sometimes forget that the birds are sensitive to human impact and could potentially abandon their nests if they feel threatened by humans. Rare birds are highly sought after but, they are also typically the most susceptible to human disruption. This problem can be avoided by having well trained guides that will keep their clients from approaching the birds too closely.

Another issue that comes up with birders is the accommodations for them in birding locations. Since they are typically higher income individuals, they may require or request more high-end hotels and restaurants in the areas they are visiting. This can lead to the destruction of critical habitat due to the building of new hotels, restaurants and shopping centers. A more extreme result of this is the transfer of cash flow from the locals to foreigners that own the high-end place, also known as “cash leaks.” This can cause the locals who do not benefit from the tourism to resist the conservation of local lands. There are a couple of ways that this problem is solved by birders. The first is that birds typically take precedence over everything else on birding trips. Although the participants are high income, they do not care about the accommodations as much as getting to see the birds. In fact, birders going to High Island, Texas often sleep on the floor of a local school’s gymnasium for little cost. When birders do stay in resort type accommodations, they prefer resorts that are environmentally friendly, maintain private reserves and hire locals as guides.

There are also many things that birders and do to support conservation in the regions they are visiting. Kenn Kaufman’s best selling field guide has recently been translated to Spanish and he has started to get donations in order to send the books to areas of the United States that have large Spanish speaking populations. This will help the local people become more familiar with the birds of their region and hopefully lead to additional birders that will push for the protection for those species. Birders also participate in research projects for multiple organizations around the world. These bird counts and citizen science projects provide ornithologists with valuable information. This information can lead to the protection of species that are in decline, such as the purchase of critical habitats and hunting restrictions. This information is especially important in areas in Central and South America where prior research has been very limited. Birders must do things to ensure that there will be birds to watch in the future and so that other birders can continue to travel and see new and exciting birds. In order to ensure that this will happen, birders must insist that local guides be certified. Birder should also not shy away from criticizing their guides should they do something to disrupt the birds. It is also important to remember the one of the best ways to ensure the continued conservation of land is to continue to educate the locals about the effects of wildlife disturbance.

There are many positive effects of birding tourism for birders, locals, and the birds. Birding tourism is one of the best ways to encourage the continued conservation of birdable land. Locals are also positively affected by birding tourism. The money earned from birding tourism is a large part of the economy in many birding locations. Locals gain a great deal economically from the presents of birders in their area. Birding also contributes positively to the conservation of land for birds and other wildlife. This contributes to many birders green forms of tourism. Although there are some negative impacts of birding tourism, the benefits in this situation far outweigh them. Birding tourism is a great way to economically stimulate a rural area and also to increase conservation in biologically threatened areas.

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