The majority of visitors to Okaloosa County come for our most popular natural resources, the beach and ocean. However, our county has so much more to offer and visitors and residents are often not aware of the wide variety of ecotourism and agritourism options available to them.
Ecotourism and agritourism are two segments of the tourism industry that are growing in the Panhandle.
Agritourism involves bringing visitors to the farm for activities such as fruit and vegetable picking, corn mazes, hayrides, bonfires, weddings, and campouts.
Ecotourism is nature-based travel that emphasizes conserving the environment and having little to no impact on the natural environment. This includes bird watching, hiking, biking, kayaking, camping and other actives in nature.
Local businesses are beginning capitalize on their nature-based and/or agricultural tourism operations, not only during the busy summer season, but also as a way to increase tourism during the traditionally “slow” times of the year.
The average tourist on the Emerald Coast spends approximately $90 per person/per day, with 41 percent going towards lodging, 25 percent shopping, 17 percent food, 10 percent entertainment and 7 percent other. In Okaloosa County, this translated to $603 million of tourist spending in 2014 and resulted in 11,923 jobs.
Eco- and agritourism are a small, but growing sector of that tourism industry. They brought $117 million in tourist spending and accounted for 2,313 jobs in Okaloosa County in 2014. That is nearly 20 percent of the overall tourist spending in the county.
Eco- and agritourism must be advantageous for communities where it exists. Otherwise, there is no incentive to provide these valuable services. To support its growth we need to work together to increase traffic to local ecotourism and agritourism businesses, particularly during the fall and spring. We need to increase local and out-of-area awareness of existing businesses. We can also support the creation of new businesses tailored to serve the needs of visitors.
Eco- and agritourism can benefit both the citizens and environment in Okaloosa County.
Laura Tiu is an agent at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office in Crestview.