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THE ISSUE: Manatees drawing tourists.
OUR OPINION: Concerted effort needed to capitalize on tourism.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say encounters in the wild with manatees increased 36 percent from 2010 to 2011 in Citrus County.
This revelation occurred as two members of FWS spoke to Citrus County Economic Develop- ment Council (EDC) members at a recent meeting. They went on to say that more should be done to tout this tourism activity that drew 93,000 to the county in 2011.
Currently, an economic impact study is being conducted that will tell local officials the dollars being spent on various tourism activities in the county.
More and more, the lure of interacting with manatees in the wild is drawing tourists to Citrus County, and it is imperative we develop a combined effort to promote this, along with the other recreational tourism activities available in the county.
An opportunity exists to develop tourism packages that can capitalize on the manatee visitors and keep them in the county for more than one day. We have many other viable outdoor activities — such as bird watching, biking and the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park — that can be packaged into a two- to three-day getaway for tourists.
The challenge for our county — from the EDC to the Tourism Development Council to the Chamber of Commerce — is find ways to partner together in developing and promoting these unique opportunities.
Another observation is, with nearly 100,000 visitors coming to the county each year to visit manatees, it is important we develop a broader plan for managing the interactions with manatees. Those numbers are based on tour boat visitors and do not include personal boat renters or private watercraft users who might also be interacting with manatees. The tour boats are already subjected to certain regulations they follow, but there are plenty of other unregulated visitors who interact with the manatees.
Manatees are a huge draw for the county and it is important to not only protect that resource, but also not to limit ourselves to just depending on one source of tourism. A concerted effort is needed.