COLLEGE STATION — Recently released national figures show Texas communities shouldn’t expect birdwatching and other wildlife viewing to bring a nature tourism boom, a Texas A&M University expert says.
However, because birdwatchers and other wildlife observers are a large segment of the population, there are ways that communities can profit from an interest in wildlife.
“Most birders are novices or casual birders, and they’re likely to want to do things other than birdwatching,” said Dr. David Scott, an assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism sciences at Texas A&M who tracks birding trends.
“They might want to combine birding with shopping. They might visit small towns for their heritage and history, or take part in other forms of outdoor recreation. Many like to eat in nice restaurants and stay in hotels.”
To draw his conclusions about the size of the birding and wildlife viewing markets, Scott analyzed both the latest statistical information available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and data collected by him and his colleagues at Texas birding festivals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service Service periodically conducts its National Survey on Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated recreation and released a preliminary report on its 1997 findings in July. Scott used the initial findings for his analysis, and the service’s final report was issued in November.
The service’s last national survey was conducted in 1991.
High hopes for wildlife tourism come partly from estimates of the number of people who observe, feed or photograph wildlife, Scott said. The agency’s numbers indicate almost 63 million people take part in those activities and spent $31 billion in the process.
However, only 22.9 million do so away from home, which is one of the reasons Scott says communities must temper their economic hopes. In addition, 54 percent of that $31 billion was spent on equipment for observing, feeding and photographing wildlife, while only 9 percent was spent for transportation, 11 percent for food, 6 percent for lodging, 4 percent for other trip costs and 16 percent for other expenditures.
“I’m a firm believer that we’re distorting the impacts of these activities. There are people who believe there is more money out there than there actually is,” he said.
“The market is big, but it’s not spending as much as people in some communities would like. The average wildlife watcher spent less than $500 in 1996, and most of that, remember, was spent on equipment.”
The federal agency’s numbers are useful, Scott said, because they give a big picture of how many people are interested. However, more exact breakdowns of their habits are needed, which is why he and his colleagues have conducted research at Texas birding festivals such as the Hummer/Bird Festival in Rockport and the Great Texas Birding Classic along the Texas coast.
Using data from surveys at the Hummer/Bird Festival, they were able to classify visitors into four different categories based on their interests: water seekers, heritage seekers, outdoor recreationists and serious birders.
Serious birders indicated they spent more money on birding in the year prior to the festivals — an average of $1,727, compared to $1,134 for outdoor recreationists, $778 for heritage seekers and $345 for water seekers, Scott said.
However, of the four groups, heritage seekers actually spent most at the festival — an average of $357, compared to $263 for water seekers, $248 for outdoor recreationists and $244 for serious birders.
Scott says his data indicate the wildlife viewing market can be profitable for communities if they offer supplemental activities.
“They will have to form partnerships with other wildlife groups, heritage groups or others,” Scott said. “Our category of water seekers, for instance, likes to fish and and be close to water. They like to combine birdwatching trips with other outdoor activities, shopping, visiting small towns and historic sites, and other wildlife viewing.”
Heritage recreationists have similar tastes except for a lack of interest in fishing, camping or other outdoor recreation. Like water seekers, though, they enjoy nice restaurants and staying in hotels or bed-and-breakfast inns.
“Dollars spent by birders and wildlife watchers can help diversify local economies, and nature-based tourism is environmentally friendlier than other types of tourism,” Scott said.
“Better understanding of wildlife watchers and what they like will help communities take advantage of those things.”