Cash cows: Manatees mean tourist dollars

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By Pat Faherty

Those cute creatures of habit that return to King’s Bay each winter have an undeniable impact on Citrus County’s economy.

And they are attracting more visitors each year, according to the latest figures.

For many area businesses, manatees mean money, as they attract visitors — potential big spenders — from all over, reinforcing the economic impact of tourism. Plus, possibly seeking some positive caché, local businesses from auto sales to tour boat operators have long used the term “manatee” in their business names.

Citrus County has been known as Florida’s manatee capital since the early 1980s. The county’s most significant tourist draw has been it is the only place in the United States where one can legally interact and swim with manatees. There are also manatee education opportunities and, of course, manatee souvenirs.

The result has been a wintertime manatee-based tourism economy creating jobs and generating tax revenue.

“There were 114,203 visitors here for 2012, showing a huge increase in tourism since last year,” Ivan Vicente, visitor specialist at Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, said. “There were more tourists reported by dive boat and tour boat operators.”

The number of manatee-seeking visitors is up more than 20,000 for 2012. The numbers had increased from about 68,000 in 2010 to more than 93,000 in 2011.

Vincente said the difference is noticeable, and more and more people in the private sector are finding out about it. Also, there are a lot more paddle boarders going out manatee watching.

“These animals have brought a lot of tourism money to this area,” Refuge Manager Michael Lusk said during a recent tour of King’s Bay by federal officials. “During the winter, you can barely get through here. You have boaters, people trying to swim, people trying to kayak and the tour operators. And, of course, you have the manatees who come to the area because the water temperature at the springs stays at 72 degrees.”

Lusk said recently he did not know of any other place in the world where there is an eco-tourism industry built around getting in the water with an endangered species or interacting closely with a protected marine mammal.

“It’s very unique and very delicate,” he said.

“Overall, the tourist numbers are growing,” Capt. Michael Birns, president of the Manatee Eco-Tourism Association (META), said. “I see 2013 as a huge season for manatee tourism.”

He views the activity as an overall barometer of the national economy. He said they are seeing a lot more tourists from the Midwest right now, with the volume from Northeast and Europe a little light.

And some things to raise awareness of Crystal River’s manatee tourism are in the offing, including a spread in National Geographic and a segment on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“Manatee tourism is the number one hook that brings them here,” he said. “The big challenge for us as a county is to keep them here.

“We’re the manatee capital of the world. We have to strive to become a world-class destination.” 

Birns said he is proud of META’s role, as a young organization being a positive force in developing manatee tourism.

“About half of the tour boat owners belong. We’re very committed,” he said.

Marla Chancey, executive director of the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau, pointed out the 2011 Manatee Impact Study. The study was based on a survey of people who had been manatee watching within Citrus County in the past three years.

Among the findings: local area visitors spent less than $100 per person on manatee viewing and a little more per party on their entire manatee watching experience.

Those from other parts of Florida, other states and Canada, spent 2.5 to 6 times more on manatee watching than those from the local area. And they averaged spending more than $1,400 per party, with a significant number spending $3,500 or more.

Contact Chronicle reporter Pat Faherty at 352-564-2924 or pfaherty@chronicleonline.com.