"A lot of times they're kind of a peripheral part of the tourism market, or that's how they're treated," says Julie Brashears, a coordinator with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
In an effort to change that, the commission is polling bird-watchers at surveyroom.com/birdtrail/web to find out how much money they spend when they travel. Current commission figures show birding generates an annual $477 million in retail sales in Florida alone -- second nationwide only to California.
The survey also aims to find out what kinds of amenities destinations could offer specifically for birders. For instance, hotels with continental breakfast service could start serving earlier than 7 a.m. or offer bag lunches for people who head out before sunrise.
Florida tourism leaders are watching the trend. In a poll by Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, 70.3% of those who came to Florida between February 2003 and February 2004 made nature-based activities part of their itineraries, an increase of 3.2% over the previous year.
The commission's Great Florida Birding Trail guidebooks list 330 sites in the state's eastern, western and Panhandle regions and will eventually include south Florida sites. Requests for the guides have come from all 50 states and seven other countries, Brashears says. Birders can request free copies through the website at florida-birdingtrail.com or by calling 850/488-8755.
One advantage of attracting birders, Brashears says, is that destinations don't have to spend a lot of money to do it. "To court these kinds of tourists," she says, "you don't have to pave and drain and put up neon."
Popular Birding Sites
-- Everglades National Park near Miami
-- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in southwest Florida
-- Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in the Keys
-- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Kennedy Space Center
-- Fort DeSoto Park near St. Petersburg