North Coast Journal

Cover Story - August 1995


by Marie Gravelle and Greg Magnus

Destination: Nature

One day last june, Jody and Ric Hornor, 44 and 46, packed their bags and left the heat of Sacramento for Humboldt County. It was their second trip of the year. They had visited over Memorial Day weekend for the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

While they were here, the Hortons occasionally slept in motels or stayed with friends, but mostly they camped under the stars. They almost always ate in restaurants -- Rolf's in Orick and Larrupin' in Trinidad were two favorites -- and they slipped into Old Town Eureka to do some shopping.

"There's a store that has handmade furniture," Jody Horton recalled

"Ambiance. That's it."

While they were here they also signed up with a company called Redwood Exposure to do a one-day guided nature tour for a fee of $195 each. In the morning they photographed towering redwoods in Redwood National Park, heard lectures on the flora and fauna of the forest, and ended the day in the tidepools of Trinidad studying starfish.

The Hortons are becoming more and more interesting to people in the tourism and travel business because they are a special brand of tourist. They are ecotourists.

An ecotourist is said to be one who walks softly on the earth, leaving behind only footprints in the sand. Footprints, and money, that is.

According to statistics provided by the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau, ecotourists are educated (90 percent attended college; 80 percent graduated), young (median age 37) and well-to-do (average salary $80,000 a year.)

People like the Hortons wear "sportswear" and fill their homes with "cultural products." Other items on the ecotourist's shopping list may include "new cars, photographic equipment, lap-top computers and software, watches, books, luggage and home fitness equipment."

When ecotourists aren't busy tooling around they frequent "independent/foreign language films, theater, concerts, opera, ballet, live music, museums, art shows and galleries."

Ecotourists take vacations more frequently and for longer durations. Plus they're willing to spend money -- $2,000 to $3,000 a trip -- to get what they want.

"Why not capitalize on those facts and start promoting it right now?" said Kathleen Gordon-Burke, marketing director of the visitors bureau.

"Tourism is the No. 2 industry in this county," she added, "second only to timber." About 4,000 local jobs are tied directly to tourism and many more indirectly.

Until recently, many American ecotravelers chose foreign destinations. They hiked through Costa Rica's lush rainforests, trekked Nepal's high mountain trails, followed the path of Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, watched emperor penguins frolic in Antarctica or trailed cautiously behind elephants in Kenya.

Ron LeValley, owner of McKinleyville's Biological Journeys, first saw the potential for ecotravel 20 years ago when he took University of California students down to Baja for vacations. Fifteen years ago he started Biological Journeys which now takes people to Australia, Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Baja California, Africa and Costa Rica. But he sees the potential at home as well.

"Ecotourism has a lot of different possibilities in Humboldt County," he said.

Rose and Jim Bond, geologists and owners of Redwood Exposure, aren't the only ones guiding people through the tidepools and redwoods. There are numerous nature programs offered by local, state and federal parks, including a recent bird-watching tour in Southern Humboldt, a class on nature painting, or -- for a little more excitement -- a tour of bear caves in Redwood National Park.

A precise definition of ecotourism is hard to come by. To some, it overlaps with "adventure travel," riding the rapids of the Salmon River or backpacking in the Marble Mountains. But if you go with a knowledgeable guide, learn something along the way, and stay kind to the environment, you may be an ecotourist. If you leave the agates and shells on the beach even though they would look great with in your bathroom back home, you may be an ecotourist.

It's easier to define what an ecotourist is not: someone who travels in a motorhome from RV park to RV park, sees the forests and coastal vistas through the windshield, and watches sitcoms on a battery-powered TV at night.

Some evironmentalists see ecotourism as an answer to the problems plaguing many of our federal parks -- overcrowding and underfunding.

On one hand, Congress is eyeing severe budget cuts for the National Park Service. (Construction on federal lands, including national parks, may be cut in half while operational funds for parks could be reduced by 10 percent and land purchases could be frozen for five years.)

But this year more than ever, foreign and domestic tourists are flocking to the superstars of our state and national park systems -- Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

That's not true, however, for the North Coast's Redwood National Park.

In the July issue of Sunset magazine, the cover story ranks Redwood National Park, along with Lassen in California and North Cascades in Washington state, "among the West's least crowded parks," logging less than 500,000 visits per year.

"Have we got a surprise for you. Make that six surprises -- spectacular national parks that you have probably never visited, maybe never even heard of. ä Here, the only lines you'll find are those that dangle from fishing poles."

Megan Eplerwood, executive director for the Ecotourism Society headquartered in North Bennington, Vt., said, Yosemite in particular is "being loved to death."

Ecotourism dollars may allow the government to plan and manage tourism and support conservation, she said, by charging entrance fees to parks. For park ranger programs and nature hikes, fees could be used to cover the extra costs of providing guides.

"People worry that ecotourism will turn the national parks into businesses but (national parks) need the financial resources to support the changes they'll have to make," Eplerwood said in a telephone interview.

"Parks will have to look at (ecotourism) like a business does and see what the consumer can afford and price for themselves.

"They will not price themselves out of the market. (Some) parks will charge less because there are lots of parks across the country. Yosemite and Yellowstone can charge more."

Ecotourism is definitely a growth industry. In the mid-1980s when statistics were first gathered, the number of ecotourists in the United States was estimated to be 8 million. By the end of this year, that number will rise to 43 million, according to the Ecotourism Society.

And it's a lucrative market. Ecotourism generated as much as $12 billion nationally in 1988 and is projected to grow as much as 25 percent by this year, according to the U.S. Travel Data Center.

"(Humboldt County) is natural for ecotourism because of the wealth of natural resources, the scenic coastline, the Six Rivers area," said Michael Sweeney, director of Humboldt State University's Institute of Ecological Tourism -- an extension of the university's College of Natural Resources and Sciences.

"The interest in ecology and natural history is an increasing global trend related to the fact that many natural environments are disappearing.

"Ecotourism offers the promise of sustainability because you experience the resource, not consume it."

David Walsh, president of the board for the Environmental Protection Information Center based in Garberville, said the Headwaters Forest "could play a significant role in the development of ecological tourism" in Eureka because of its proximity to the city.

Headwaters, coveted by environmentalists because it contains some of the largest stands of old growth timber still in private ownership, could be "virtually a Disneyland in our backyard," Walsh said. "It could be a multi-million dollar business that doesn't go away, that lasts forever."

Josh Kaufman, a member of the executive committee of the Humboldt County Sierra Club, said his organization hasn't addressed the topic of ecotourism but personally thinks the secondary benefits of ecotourism of keeping wilderness areas more pristine is a good idea.

"I think it's great for the economy to have that new aspect that can keep people alive up here but I wouldn't put all of my eggs in one basket and expect ecotourism to save everything," he said.

Others involved in job development and economic planning for the county echo Kaufman's fears. Tourism jobs pay substantially lower wages than those jobs being lost in the timber industry.

Back home in Sacramento, months after their latest tour, Jody Horton still recalls her trip with longing.

"We love the outdoors and love to learn," she said. "We went to the tidepools north of Trinidad and it was wonderful. I knew nothing about those critters."

She distinctly remembers the pink muscley-looking animals found in the shallow ocean pools.

"They looked like hard rubber balls when they closed up," she said. The gum boot chiton is a sight she'll never forget, even if the name might slip her mind.

The lasting impression of a banana slug clinging to an ancient redwood, said Ric Horton, "means more than any contrived adventure." Standing in line for a half hour at an amusement park for a 2-minute ride is not his idea of a good time.

"Disneyland sucks."

And Rose Bond, who led the charge that day through the tidepools, thoroughly enjoys those tourists like the Hortons who want to learn.

"We don't just walk down the forest trails," Bond said. "We get down on our hands and knees and look at the bugs..."

"I hope people will remember their trip for the rest of their lives."

Marie Gravelle, Greg Magnus and Judy Hodgson contributed to this report.

 

MARKETING HUMBOLDT

 

Majestic mountains. Lush, green valleys. Cool ocean breezes. Magnificent sunsets.

How about kayaking, historic forts and train excursions?

It's all right here on the North Coast, according to Humboldt County's marketing effort.

Local tourism pros aren't missing out on the opportunity to promote Humboldt as "California's Rain Forest" in magazines targeting the ecotraveler.

"We have been advertising in Sunset and Motorland," said Kathleen Gordon-Burke of the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Those target the older, general interest population.

"Last year we decided to do ecotourism. Now we advertise in Ecotraveler magazine and Adventure West."

Those target a younger population. And the effort seems to be paying off.

After moving into the eco scene, Gordon-Burke said responses to the ads jumped more than 200 percent. As of June 30, the visitors bureau had received 9,000 calls based on magazine ads. About 2,000 of those responses were new types of people who read about Humboldt County in one of the two eco-type magazines.

While the countywide effort is important, local cities are also trying to market themselves to the new traveler - the one who prefers a quiet beach walk to big city lights.

Arcata, home of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, formed a special task force last year to gather information on how to market the city to potential travelers.

And topping the list of enticements?

"Birds," said City Manager Alice Harris.

Hundreds of species of waterfowl, shorebirds and even river otters populate the marsh. Built to deal with Arcata's sewage flow, the marsh has won numerous national awards and has become one of the city's major tourist attractions.

Gordon-Burke said it's almost too easy to tell the outside world what the North Coast has to offer the ecotraveler.

"An endless stream of words" forms the background to one of the county's print ads, she said.

"Native American villages - Bonfires on the Beach - Harbor Cruises - Carriage Rides - National Parks - River Rafting - Cool Breezes - and on and on and on."

Most county residents know all this. But in print, in a national magazine, these ads make even a lifelong resident think, "Hey, I want to go there."

 



Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner