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— It's a fact. Tourists will pay good money to visit Imperial Beach to go birding in the cold morning mist at the Tijuana River Estuary. They'll come from Europe to Poway to climb Mt. Woodson's boulders. A nature lover from Michigan will gladly hop a plane to explore the warm winter sands of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Someday San Diego County may be as well known for its wildlife, outdoor activities, and diverse geography as for Shamu, the zoo, and Wild Animal Park. That's the goal of the San Diego Ecotourism Committee, a nine-month-old group of local business people, ecological groups, politicians, and tourism marketers.

Worldwide, ecotourism is the newest and fastest growing segment of the general hospitality industry. It promotes an area's unique natural features and active-recreation opportunities. According to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the total economic benefit from nature- and wildlife-oriented recreation in America is nearly $40 billion a year. It supports 766,000 jobs and contributes $3 billion to state and federal tax coffers. A nationwide survey on recreation and the environment found that between 1983 and 1995, participation in backpacking was up about 73 percent, hiking 93 percent, and bird watching 155 percent.

"My vision is to see San Diego as the number-one ecotourism destination in the United States," says Michael Klein. "It has all the raw material. I don't know of a county in the United States that is as diverse as what we've got." Klein, with his partner Claude Edwards, run FLITE Tours and are active members of the San Diego Ecotourism Committee. Klein came to FLITE from Raytheon Corporation, where he was a financial manager. Edwards is a well-known local nature-tour leader and licensed field biologist. It's just this combination of business and ecology that the men believe has been missing in the past.

"There are local businesses that promote themselves as nature tours -- we do bird-watching tours, and others do tours of the desert or other areas -- but they're not connected to a broader San Diego County economic base," Edwards observes. "And San Diego is already a destination for tourists." It's just a matter of coordinating efforts and taking advantage of what already exists.

To this end, last September county supervisor Pam Slater convened the first Ecotourism Summit, hosted by sandag (San Diego Association of Governments) and the convention and visitors bureaus of San Diego and North County. The audience of 200 mayors, councilmembers, and ecology and tourism representatives heard presentations by business and wildlife groups, proposing ongoing, organized promotion of San Diego ecotourism.

Klein and Edwards were among the presenters at the summit. "When we gave our presentation, it was full of dollars-and-cents things," says Klein. "I took some base statistics over the past couple of years for the tourism industry, and I said, okay, let's say people [who come to San Diego for some other reason] stay one extra day to do wildlife viewing. And let's be conservative. Let's not say everyone stays, because you're dealing with conventioneers as well as tourists. But, hypothetically, 10 percent of them stay for one extra day with their families. The industry potential for the region is $1 billion."

To arrive at this, Klein used 1996 visitor counts from ConVis (about 4 million), San Diego's per diem food/lodging rate of $110 a day, and the county's "economic benefit" multiplier of 2.4, provided by SDSU's economics department. This multiplier is used to calculate the financial benefit of an industry to a specific region. "But [ecotourism] has to be identified, it's got to be marketed, and it's got to be a region-wide thing," Klein says.

Adds Edwards, "The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau is the principal marketer of San Diego to tourists. At the moment, it has no ecotourism department...and no specific goals to promote the region as a nature destination." Slater's summit was intended to begin the process of educating the business community and bringing together environmental, agricultural, and even historical groups to form a network of potential ecotourism destinations.

One example of a wildlife-oriented travel destination cited at the summit was the town of Cape May, on the sandy southern peninsula of New Jersey. It's considered the number-one birding location in the United States. With relatively little else to offer in the way of tourist attractions, in 1996 birding alone brought in $31 million to the community's hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.

From Slater's eco-summit came a mission statement for the project, "To promote the San Diego region's unique environments through educational opportunities that enhance the area and preserve those sites and stimulate economic development." The first summit also produced an action committee of environmental and tourism representatives, chaired by the director of North County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Cami Matson. The committee is now establishing criteria for identifying feasible destinations for tourists. The committee meets every other month in the sandag offices.

Says Klein, "We sent out a general questionnaire to potential destinations asking questions like, 'What is the uniqueness of your location?' 'Does your facility have a visitors center, educational programs, environmental preservation projects, interpretive materials, handicap access?' 'What are your hours of operation?' 'Is your facility seasonal?' 'Can you count the numbers who visit your facility?' Because," says Klein, "you can't say how well your ecotourism marketing is doing unless you can measure it. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Edwards cites Loew's Coronado Bay Resort, on the Silver Strand, as one San Diego business already beginning to promote ecotourism for their guests. According to a Loew's spokeswoman, "A lot of properties offer fitness classes, sailing, golf. But we find that people these days are looking for something different. For the last four years, in cooperation with the Chula Vista Nature Center, we've offered beach-to-bay nature walks to our guests on weekends. In December we started bird-watching tours of the area and have three more scheduled this year. We're so close to the nature center, Tijuana estuary, that it's an easy thing for us to do. There are more than 60 resident bird species in our area alone. And all these things have been very well received by our guests."

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