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Visit Florida to tourists: Volunteer while you vacation

Volunteers with the Ocean Conservancy and Keep Pinellas Beautiful participated in a recent cleanup of the shoreline overlooking the South Gandy Channel in Tampa Bay. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Volunteers with the Ocean Conservancy and Keep Pinellas Beautiful participated in a recent cleanup of the shoreline overlooking the South Gandy Channel in Tampa Bay. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Aug. 14, 2019

When splashing in the water or sprawling on the beach isn't enough, Florida tourism officials now have a different pitch to the state's visitors: Find deeper communion with nature in knowing your wanderlust won't harm the environment.

Visit Florida's latest campaign appeals to travelers who might want to paddle through mangroves or even volunteer for a day of beach cleanup. Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state's new "sustainable travel hub" on the Visit Florida website. It tells tourists which kind of flights use the least fuel and which destinations are the most walkable.

"Here's where to learn about Florida's eco-friendly attractions, activities, dining, transportation and lodging, and how to practice voluntourism while you're here," the new Visit Florida "eco" webpage tells potential visitors. DeSantis' written announcement said the state is committed preserving its natural environment and wanted to make "going green" tips accessible for tourists.

"Since taking office, I have made the protection of our environment a top priority," DeSantis said. "In their continued effort to keep our state at the forefront of travelers' minds, Visit Florida's new eco travel hub will put our beautiful environment on display and enable millions of visitors to take advantage of Florida's sustainable travel options."

DeSantis recently named a new resilience officer who has been tasked with overseeing how the state copes with climate change — be it sea-level rise or extreme heat. The new travel hub fits into the more environmentally conscious image DeSantis has projected since taking office, which stands in contrast to the prior administration.

But Visit Florida's main mission is to sell vacationers on Florida. And travelers, millennials especially, have proven they care enough about the planet for it to influence where and how they travel.

Tourism analyst group MMGY Global published the results of its portrait of the American Traveler survey in July. In it, 48 percent of respondents said climate change will have a significant influence on which destinations they want to visit in the next five to 10 years.

During a presentation at a Hillsborough hoteliers conference last month, MMGY's partner and tourism expert Al Merschen told attendees travelers are increasingly interested in heading to destinations with their children that they fear will be drastically changed by climate change. The survey also showed millennials were driving an increase in the number of travelers who selected a travel service "based on perceptions of sustainability and environmental considerations" — it went from 8 percent in 2018 to 13 percent this year.

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Destinations across the country are promoting their natural assets. Similar to Florida, Nevada is pushing its outdoors to tourists. Banners at the airport in Las Vegas tell travelers about the eight nearby National Parks, said Todd Uglow, tourism expert and professors at the hospitality college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It is the state's effort to shed its sin city image, but also to reach the modern traveler: Young people who crave experiences authentic to living like a local in a given destination.

"They don't want to stay on the strip in a motel," he said. "They want to stay in a cabin in the middle of the desert."

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Visit Florida's new web page has three points of emphasis: ecotourism resources, ecotourism tips, and volunteering while on vacation. The site suggests booking a non-stop flight and choosing coach seating because its the most fuel efficient. If you need to rent a car? Try a hybrid. Get to the beaches in Pinellas via the Suncoast Beach Trolley, zip around Tampa and Ybor on the street car, or hop spot to spot on Fort Lauderdale's water taxi.

But Visit Florida's spotlight on voluntourism is where its latest campaign takes a turn from how other destinations are handling their marketing. But they may be picking up on something.

Tampa Bay's own non-profit cleanup groups say they've noticed more volunteers — and that has included tourists, especially over the last two years.

"We have had our groups out there and guests staying at a hotel nearby, or a rented condo nearby, will say, 'Oh, can we help out?'' said Keep Pinellas Beautiful CEO Patricia DePlasco. "We are seeing members of the community of all ages coming out and volunteering."

DePlasco said an out-of-town couple getting married on Treasure Island reached out to her non-profit to set up a group beach clean-up before their nuptials with their wedding guests. They planned a post-party clean-up session, too.

"They wanted to give back," DePlasco said.

In Hillsborough, Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful program director Shelby Damrill said often youth leagues visiting Tampa for tournaments (or professional teams like the Toronto Blue Jays) will volunteer to pick up trash. Some visitors have found the group on Google and reached out to see if there's a cleanup day they can join, she said.

"The danger Florida could run into is someone sees that (and wonders) does Florida really need people coming in to help with local projects?" Uglow said. "It's one of the wealthiest places in the world."

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The web hub promotes reaching out the Seabird Sanctuary or Metropolitan Ministries to see if they could use helping hands. There is a feature story about a Montreal woman who uses her time in Florida to volunteer at the Marathon Wild Bird Center in the Keys. The site offers contact info for volunteer opportunities at places such as the Coral Restoration Foundation and Forest Animal Rescue.

"Voluntourism was a natural fit for the new eco-friendly travel hub," Visit Florida said in statement. "Often, travelers who are eco-conscious are interested in volunteer opportunities, so we wanted to ensure information was readily available to them."

Uglow said states are rightfully going to continue to focusing on ecotourism to promote what's special and needs to be protected within their destinations. The volunteering bit, however? Probably not much more than a fad, he said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.


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