Coastal Alabama is beloved for its beaches. But there’s so much more to see and experience — the Delta, the history, and flora and fauna. Problem is, most people don’t know it’s there.
So, Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, set about getting it the recognition it deserves. He teamed with Costas Christ, founder and president of Beyond Green Travel, and began working to let prospective visitors know what’s there and how to keep it safe for generations to come.
The pair had a working lunch at the Blue Gill Restaurant on the Causeway between Mobile and Baldwin counties. From there you can see the Delta criss-crossing the landscape in its final approach to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
And they began planning how to make ecotourism a reality in Alabama’s southernmost counties.
Until recently, ecotourism was an unfamiliar term on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. It was an unknown void. To say Mobile and Baldwin counties’ ecotourism development had a long way to go is a euphemism. It had not started.
“It was practically nonexistent,” says Blankenship. “When it came to ecotourism — the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry with a 20% annual growth globally — we did not have to up our game. We were not in the ballpark.”
That was about to change.
CAP partnered with BGT and they found a good fit.
A coastal coalition of community leaders, CAP’s vision is: “To become a globally competitive destination recognized around the world as the place to work, live and play, because of the unique quality of life found in our region.”
Based in Brooksville, Maine, BGT’s website proclaims it “offers professional services and solutions that make tourism a positive opportunity for business and the planet alike. At its core, the company believes business, tourism and the environment can work in harmony and be planet friendly.”
Christ and company went to work, starting first with a clear definition. “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that protects nature and sustains the wellbeing of local people,” the group’s founder says. He believes the potential in South Alabama is tremendous.
“Even before the pandemic, nature and cultural heritage travel were the fastest-growing sectors of the global tourism industry,” says Christ. “And that says a lot. In 2019, one out of 10 people around the world were employed in travel and tourism. Put simply, tourism is one of the largest industries on earth with the potential to contribute significantly to economic growth and development.”
Blankenship adds, “Ecotourism is the comprehensive whole environmental system for visitors to explore. Not just the beaches — though Alabama’s beaches are great — we mean everything.” He listed examples, including Mobile Bay, the Tensaw River Delta, wetlands and other areas. Some natural resources are under-utilized, many are little known, and others, difficult to access.
Working with a $560,000 BP oil spill recovery grant, the task is underway to convert an ecosystem to ecotourism and eco-jobs and economic growth. Opportunities are enormous but so are the challenges.
Currently, the project is based on six focus points from CAP’s Regional Strategic Plan:
Expand ecotourism and reinforce educational opportunities. “These can be traditional onsite classrooms,” says Blankenship. Some are unorthodox but still pretty cool.
He offers an example: “Other places offer tourists the chance to board real oyster or shrimp boats for a few hours. They learn about harvesting seafood by actually hoisting nets or pulling up oyster cages under guidance of experienced crews. When back on shore, they cook their catch. People pay to do that. They could pay us, too.”
Other educational opportunities are available in the area’s rich history. Blankenship notes, with lessons from Africatown settlers who survived by hunting and fishing; from Confederate soldiers who walked many of today’s scenic walking trails; and from ancient Indian burial grounds.
Create a great inventory for ‘place-based’ tourism. “You can leave the beach and in 10 minutes, explore places and phenomena you never knew existed,” adds Blankenship. Places such as pitcher plant bogs, where the plants chew and swallow their food like you do, except slower. BGT is making a list of such places, including the coast’s vast delta system, hidden lakes and other natural wonders.
Collaborative branding campaign. “We were all, ‘What do you mean branding? What do you mean we are not identifiable?,’” recalls Blankenship, addressing the focus point. “We are Mobile! We are the beaches of Alabama!” But he conceded, outside of about a 100-mile sphere, nobody identifies with coastal Alabama. “California has Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the City by the Bay, but Mobile/Baldwin does not have an identifier — yet.”
Create economy initiative. CAP leaders noted that from an economic standpoint, true ecotourism benefits the locals, creates job opportunities and opens paths for cottage industries such as lodging, restaurants, tour guides, campsites, fuel and supply stores. “We find many nature explorers enjoy adventures in the great outdoors by day and luxury accommodations at the Grand Hotel by night.”
Insure regional connectivity and mobility. New Green Travel advocates support for development of multi-use trails in the region. Also, access points must be made available and more prominent. “We have amazing places to see, by boat, automobile or foot trails,” says Blankenship. “But that is irrelevant if people cannot get there.”
Culinary arts initiative. “There was a time in Gulf Shores when you could not find a decent sandwich,” says Blankenship. “Now Gulf Shores/Orange Beach is a culinary destination. We can do that with other areas, too.” Visitors are often looking for food locally sourced and grown here.
But, CAP concedes, none of this works without promotion. When visitors come from North Alabama they go to the beach. They don’t go to the Delta. But they can visit the coast and see alligators, tropical birds, exotic fauna that they would never see in Huntsville. And it’s doubly true for snowbirds flitting down from the upper Midwest.
“We want the world to know what we have here and that starts with Alabama,” says Blankenship. “There are even people in Mobile and Baldwin County who don’t know what we have here. That has to change.”
CAP’s goal is to make sure that visitors marvel at the ecosystem, as well as the Gulf beaches.
But Christ sounds a note of caution. “We recommend moving away from measuring success based on growth in tourism numbers,” he says. “Having more tourists does not always translate into better tourism or more economic growth. Tourism’s success should be measured by its impact to improve the economic and social wellbeing of local communities, benefit cultural heritage and history, and directly support the protection of nature.
“Tourism should never be about conquering a destination,” Christ says. “Rather, it should be about enhancing it. I remain convinced that with proper planning and management, Coastal Alabama can be a world-class ecotourism destination that promotes cultural heritage, protects biodiversity and directly benefits local people.”
Beyond Green Travel made several visits to Coastal Alabama in 2021, gathering data, fact-finding, and formulating a plan. More work will be done in 2022.
And before long, the groups hope, green ecotourism will become the Coast’s emerald.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma.
This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama.