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Ecotourism advocate: Use what you have

Some of Hernando County's business and government leaders gathered for lunch on Monday to learn how to attract more tourists to the county. Their professor: Herb Hiller, a lanky, pony-tailed veteran of Florida's tourism industry. His message: Use what you have.

Hiller is a proponent of ecotourism, a movement to encourage tourists to visit natural attractions such as lakes and forests instead of theme parks. The county's obvious natural attractions, such as the Withlacoochee State Forest and coastal wetlands, make it an ideal ecotourist getaway, Hiller said.

Indeed, Hernando's lack of highly developed tourism would allow community leaders more freedom than other, more developed counties. "In some counties you've got an entrenched hotel or theme park section," Hiller said. "You don't have that here. In Hernando, ecotourism is really the only thing you have in terms of tourism."

Hiller has been exploring the county recently for research on a Florida guidebook he is writing for release in late 1998. He said he thinks the county is "just waiting to have something to happen to it. I just hope it's not Six Flags Over Hernando."

The lunch at Otter's Restaurant was sponsored by the Gulf Coast Conservancy, based in Aripeka. According to organizer Linda Pedersen, the group brought together almost 30 community leaders with the hope of spurring some interest in promoting ecotourism.

Reaction from the audience was generally positive. H.

M. Shirley, president of Barnett Bank, said, "We have so much more in the county that the general public isn't even aware of. People would probably use more of the resources if they were more aware of them."

Linda Claflin, who opened Brooksville's Claflin House Bed and Breakfast last August, said ecotourism would be good for the county and for her business. Past efforts to promote local natural attractions have fizzled because of a lack of focus and community leadership, she said. For ecotourism to take off, it's going to take "an individual who has the time" to devote to the project, she said.

Hiller, a former tourism executive, has been writing travel articles full time since 1982. The Putnam County resident's freelance articles have appeared in several magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic Traveler and Atlantic Monthly.

He will be the featured speaker at the Gulf Coast Conservancy's meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Aripeka Community Club. The talk will focus on ecotourism and how to conserve the "real" Florida. The meeting is free and open to the public. For information, call 686-1519.