Revised December 2017.
In the early 1980s, ecotourism was initially connected with outdoor travel to remote, unique and/or scenic areas. Early ecotourism usually involved an educational or retreat focus. As ecotourism has increased in popularity, educational elements became increasingly important. Ecotourism has been described to include pursuits as diverse as bicycling, bird watching, big-game hunting, meditation, sailing, paddling canoe trails, hiking and visits to buffalo farms, historic reenactments and museums. It now considers diverse environment and site-specific information including historic human use, community responsibility, conservation and preservation education; as well as outdoor activities and education.
The experience is designed around an area's natural variety, including its animal, plant and human cultural diversity. There are several major principles that should be part of any basic business plan: geographic and historical education; sustainable resource use (no environmental degradation); enhancement of the area’s overall sustainable development; respect for local socio-cultural concerns; and keys to success for the business and how it integrates with the area’s overall economic health, business and tourism objectives.
Is it possible to make money off of what is right out your back door? Some enterprising individuals have done so by combining their love and knowledge of the out-of-doors with sound business planning and a vision for sharing this with others within and outside the local community. A simple Internet search will find businesses based on the operator’s love of birds and wildlife, agroforestry and permacultural education, to local farming museums and hunting and fishing operations. Many are centerpiece examples of ecotourism education programs that stress local natural character, history and the potential of the landscape. The key to these businesses is that they are driven by individuals who know the subject, enjoy communicating their knowledge to others while striving to make any visit an enjoyable experience the client will want to repeat. And remember, the upscale consumer interested in a novel experience drives the industry.
So what are some ideas for a business venture? Examples may include:
- Aircraft and off-road vehicle wilderness tours;
- On-ranch primitive-weapon bison hunting or wolf-watching;
- Week-long birding expeditions (accommodations ranging from austere to five-star);
- Nature center with an emphasis on retreats or local-history;
- Wildlife watching tours with local-foods and local-craft explorations;
- Managed habitats and natural habitats: the role of trees and plants in the landscape; identification, speciation and co-evolution with insects, birds and mammals; plant identification (elementary taxonomy: major families and unique specific attributes); great naturalists in history; the concepts of xerascaping, agroforestry and permaculture; succession and the natural forest, prairie or riparian habitat;
- Birds: falconry demonstrations, bird banding; birdhouses building, blinds and hides, properly optics use;
- Pre-history: Native-American pottery from hand-quarried clay and clam shells, flint-knapping, atlatls, fire-making with bow-drills;
- Fishing and aquatic ecology: Entomology fly-casting, fly tying and the dynamics of aquatic environment and the physical hydrosphere;
- Watercraft: Guided trips, kayak and canoe rental;
- “Locavore” gathering and outdoor cooking: Natural products from field to table;
- Outdoor team-building exercises for managers, co-workers, children, special-needs or at-risk youth;
- Traditional or wilderness skills: Traditional canoe, kayak or snowshoe making shelter construction, dog-sledding, winter-camping, flint-knapping, primitive pottery or metal work;
- Equine ecotourism: Horseback touring, equestrian-skill training, back-country hunting or fishing;
- Modern art and nature: Weaving, photography, painting, sculpture; scrap-booking, journaling, glass and metal working;
- Spiritual and sense-of-place: yoga, meditation, spiritual enlightenment, literature or “history-of-place” workshops.
Any exploration of a business venture should include a rigorous self-assessment. The individuals involved need to survey their capabilities, resources and potential time commitments. More involved business planning should include a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. These need not be unnecessarily complicated and are relatively quick and easy to do. The object of the exercise is to examine the general feasibility of your idea. Models and templates can be found elsewhere on AgMRC or other business-development sites.
In the course of your planning activities, you should define your product and then gauge your management with an appreciation of how other entities compete for the client’s entertainment dollar. Critically judge the quality and value of the product that you intend to bring to the table and then consider whether your “competition” are really competitors or potential cooperators.
If you are in any way contemplating educational or immersion-type experience programs, since many people have relatively short attention spans, be sure that your program moves along with ample hands-on participatory activities, especially if children are involved. Additionally, be sure that your operational plan contains risk-management contingencies for travel delays, bad weather and medical emergencies; and that some of these policies are clearly stated in writing in initial communications with the client.
Be sure to network. There are many local, state and national small-business resources that include Internet sites like AgMRC that include entrepreneur- and small-business-related discussion groups. Find your public- and private-development specialists and build them into a support team. Join or investigate the various state and regional, Native-American, guide-outfitter, bed and breakfast, and other tourism organizations that may be right for you.
Always first develop a simple feasibility study followed by a comprehensive business plan Use these documents to look to the future. How do you plan to grow or at what level do you wish to comfortably sustain this business? What will by your eventual exit or succession strategy? Remember, you are not alone; do your research and network to find the assistance and information that you need.
Resources / Other Links
- Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California - second edition, Small Farm Program, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2011 - The new edition of this for-purchase workbook adds updated information on risk management; marketing trends, such as social media; and county, state and federal regulations. The book includes easy-to-use worksheets and activities, including creating business and marketing plans.
- Alternative Enterprises and Agritourism: Resource Evaluation Guide - This online guide helps evaluate your resources, research marketing alternatives and liability considerations.
- Ecotourism: A Guide for Planners and Managers, Vol. I; Kreg Lindberg and David Hawkins, Donald, eds - This best-selling text has been used internationally as a resource for ecotourism professionals and as a text for university courses. It is an invaluable guide providing in-depth, how-to information with informative case studies.
- Ecotourism: A Guide for Planners and Managers, Vol. II; Kreg Lindberg, Megan Epler Wood and David Engeldrum, eds - Volume II provides up-to-date perspectives, case studies, concrete lessons learned from the field and recommendations on future procedures for ecotourism development. It is written by a combination of academics and practitioners to be a practical, user- friendly guide for ecotourism project developers, an indispensable text for students and an excellent summary of current thinking for all those considering the field.
- Ecotourism Society Publications - Find out about the latest ecotourism market statistics and articles.
- Entertainment Farming & AgriTourism, Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), NCAT - This publication covers agri entertainment, a new consumer-focused type of agriculture that offers opportunity for additional farm income and diversification.
- Making Nature Your Business: A Guide for Starting A Nature Tourism Business in the Lone Star State, Texas Parks and Wildlife.
- Nature-Based Tourism Enterprises, Strom Thurmond Institute, Clemson University, and the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium - This guide was developed to assist individuals in developing nature-based businesses. Topics include: planning and development, defining your service, start-up costs, administration, operations, creation of an Internet presence and marketing.
- Nature Tourism Development - Adventure, Agritourism, Fishing & Hunting, Texas AgriLIFE Extension.
- Providing Positive Wildlife Viewing Experiences, Watchable Wildlife, Inc. and the Colorado Division of Wildlife - A resource book for professionals providing wildlife
- Managing Agricultural and Nature Tourism Operations Fact Sheets, University of California Small Farm Center.