Ecotourism growing industry in north county

Ask most Floridians to define tourism and they’ll likely reply “beaches and theme parks.”

Many Palm Beach County tourist promoters want “ecotourism” to be part of that response.

“Hiking, biking, boating, fishing, kayaking, paddleboarding — people are buying into the dream,” Ryan Sullivan said recently, standing in the yellow, purple and blue wooden shack where he rents out kayaks and paddleboards at Jupiter Outdoor Center on the Jupiter Inlet.

Ecotourism is already a purring economic engine in Florida, helping to attract tourists, create jobs and promote environmental awareness.

The state’s 12 national parks attracted about 9 million visitors in 2010 and produced a $553 million economic benefit in 2009, the last year a state study was done. Florida’s 160 state parks attracted 20.4 million visitors in 2011. The total statewide economic impact of all Florida brought in about $967 million in 2011 in money spent for dining, lodging, meals, transportation and entertainment.

Palm Beach County is revving that same engine, as business at ecotourism sites is booming.

About 78,000 visitors last year came to the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, where attendance has been increasing about 15 percent annually. About 5,000 customers rented kayaks and paddleboards last year at Jupiter Outdoor Center, and Sullivan expects more this year. Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach drew about 300,000 visitors to learn about sea turtles in 2015, up from 225,000 several years ago.

“We figure about three-fourths of our visitors are from out of Palm Beach County. These people go to restaurants, hotels and other local attractions,” said Jamie Stuve, president and CEO of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society.

It’s not just government and private business adding to ecotourism activities. Volunteers of the Club Scrub have raised about about $30,000 since 2012 to build and maintain a bicycle trail in Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

“If it wasn’t for the Club Scrub’s work, these trails wouldn’t be here. They are bringing people back to the park that is a gem that so many people do not even know exists in their own backyard,” said Mark Nelson, general manager of the 10,500-acre park just north of Tequesta.

Park visitors used to be satisfied with ball fields at county parks. With baby boomers being active, parks are changing to meet that need, said Eric Call, a Palm Beach County native who is executive director of the county’s parks and recreation department.

The county is meeting those needs by spending millions to build bicycle lanes, shore up beaches, sink artificial reefs, create paddleboard/kayak launching areas and construct public boat ramps. Sea turtles, boats, birds, even history, are all part of the booming ecotourism market, especially in north county.

The budget for the county’s parks and recreation department has zoomed from $39 million in 2000 to the current $71 million. The department operates 83 parks that include 16 beaches from South Inlet Park in Boca Raton north to Coral Cove Park in Tequesta.

“When I was a kid, you played at the ball fields and that was fine. Today’s park visitors want more alternatives, like picnicking, hiking trails, snorkeling and paddleboarding,” said Call.

The ecotourism boom is changing the way people vacation.

Bird-watching in Juno Beach Dunes Natural Area and other locations is an increasingly popular activity, said Jupiter resident Cindy Black. She sees herons, hawks and wading birds when she hikes through the area west of U.S. 1 between Rolling Green Drive and Donald Ross Road.

“People like to get out there and learn about the environment,” said Black, 62.

Hiking through historic sites at Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park, also known as Riverbend Park near Jupiter, is drawing more crowds.Volunteers dress up like American soldiers such as Gen. Thomas Sidney Jessup, a military leader in the Seminole War during the 1840s. They lead historic tours that draw about 100 people several times a year at the county park on Indiantown Road where battles were fought against the Seminole Indians.

“People are amazed when we tell them the history of what happened at the park,” said Richard Procyk, a Jupiter resident and one of the volunteers.

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