I had the pleasure of meeting John Kiseda, Education Coordinator for Sustainability for Florida’s Lee County Parks and Recreation Department, during last September’s Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC). I was thrilled to learn from John that the state of Florida had recently implemented its own eco-certification program for tourism suppliers.

The Florida SEE designation is based, among other established accreditation programs, on Costa Rica’s Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST). I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about Florida’s lesser-known ecotourism industry.

What was the catalyst (political, social, environmental and/or economic circumstances) for developing the Florida SEE certification program?

The Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism (S.E.E.) originated on Florida’s Southwest coast in 1998 following a local ecotourism workshop held in Fort Myers. At that conference, participants sought to form an organization that would establish and maintain a professional code of ecotourism ethics in order to promote awareness and stewardship of Florida’s natural and cultural heritage. Florida SEE members include individuals, ecotour providers, hospitality industries, tourism planners, protected area managers, academics and students, regional tourism associations, organizations and travelers. To foster principles of true ecotourism and to encourage improved professionalism in the ecotourism industry, SEE developed Florida’s first certification program for ecotour operators. It was increasing interest in this certification/recognition program that drove Florida SEE to expand its southwest Florida roots across the state. SEE has recently completed a second revision of this certification/recognition program for implementation statewide.

How is Florida SEE changing the landscape for tourism in Florida?

As more travelers become aware of the true principles of ecotourism, Florida SEE continues to educate the public about what to look for and questions to ask of their tourism providers while providing training workshops for ecotourism businesses on sustainable practices. Both the public and ecotourism providers are looking for standards that will help them make correct choices for this travel industry. By having a certification/recognition program and a “seal of approval,” it is easier for everyone to recognize those best practices for ecological sustainability, natural area management, and quality ecotourism experiences.

What is the most misunderstood aspect (by visitors) about Florida’s ecotourism offerings?

For years, Florida promoted itself based upon “nature tourism” standards. While this provided a growing visitor market and economic prosperity, more communities throughout Florida are now looking for sustainable growth and the promotion of preferred ecotourism service providers that protect their natural and cultural resources. Being a traveler that enjoys nature interpretation is not enough any longer. Travelers to Florida understand the fragile ecosystems that they are traveling to and want to make sure that they are contributing to the protection and enhancement of these natural areas.

Describe what tourism companies learn the most by going through your certification process (and how many companies have successfully completed the Florida SEE program)?

Florida SEE provides its members with the current emerging best practices for ecological sustainability, natural area management, and quality ecotourism experiences through educational and professional development opportunities hosted by Florida SEE. Certified Operators take pride in knowing that their staff and organization are supporting and implementing these best practices and principles of ecotourism. Customers are confident that they have chosen a Certified Ecotour Operator who supports and implements best practices and principles of ecotourism. Certified Operators have a competitive marketing advantage over similar Non-Certified Operators. They are listed prominently on the Florida SEE website. The website listing includes a level of certification, highlights of Operator’s best practices and a direct link to the Operator’s webpage. Within the first 6 months of implementing the new certification/recognition program, Florida SEE has three ecotourism providers now certified on the Southwest coast. Four additional ecotourism providers across the state are currently in the application process.

What are the top 3 tips for families that want to experience ecotourism in Florida?

  1. While a number of tourism providers entice visitors to travel into fragile ecosystems unique to Florida in order to get in closer contact with wildlife, resist those providers that feed wildlife in order to provide those close encounters. Wildlife that is fed become habituated to humans as a food source and then can be labeled as a “nuisance” animal that then threatens humans when not fed.
  2. Overcome what I call “Disney-itis” or the need to see wildlife “perform on cue” in order for it to be a worthwhile experience. We need visitors, especially families, to relearn the art of observation, exploration, and general patience when traveling into pristine natural areas.
  3. Ask questions of the ecotourism providers they engage about how they can help not only sustain but enhance the natural resources they come to Florida to enjoy. Eco-travelers need to learn the responsible behaviors that are expected of them in order for these experiences to be there for their children to enjoy in future years.

For more information, visit Florida SEE.  

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