MANATEE -- Tourists are coming to the Gulf Coast for more than its beaches.
Thousands of people are flocking to the coastline hugging the Gulf of Mexico to fish, hunt and be one with nature.
An Environmental Defense Fund study released Tuesday calls these activities "wildlife tourism."
And because of years of government policies to protect the natural environment, Manatee County is getting its share of that economic growth.
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"If someone asked me if we have wildlife tourism in Manatee County, I'd say definitely yes," said Kelly Klotz, communications manager
for the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "And it keeps growing."
According to the Environmental Defense Fund study, "each year, wildlife watching, recreational fishing, and hunting draw 20 million participants annually in the five states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas."
The study lists 827 tourism-related businesses in Manatee County, creating 13,565 jobs, or 13 percent of private sector jobs in the county.
The study considers activities where people observe or photograph plants and animals in their natural environment, such as birding, dolphin tours, scuba and snorkeling, sea turtle watching, and alligator watching.
Along with the recreational fishing charters that have always been popular, Klotz said a number of businesses promote nature tours.
Kim Ibasfalean, owner of Captain Kim's Boat Rides, has been taking tourists out on her two boats to see nature up close for about 13 years.
"I don't think it has grown in Florida as much as the other states," Ibasfalean said, "but I think that's because we've always been eco-friendly, especially Manatee County."
What she has noticed is the change in the kinds of nature her clients want to see.
Many of the tourists are bird watchers and strictly want to look for birds along the shorelines, Ibasfalean said.
Max Dersch, manager of the Resource Management Division of Manatee County Natural Resources Department, said in the 13 years he has been with the agency he has seen a significant increase in people visiting the county's wildlife areas.
For example, 50 percent of the visitors to Emerson Point Preserve on Snead Island 10 or 12 years ago were there for the fishing, and the rest were there for activities such as bird watching, hiking, and picnicking, Dersch said.
"Now it's 25 percent fishing and 75 percent for everything else," he said. "Not that there has been a decrease in fishing, but there's a lot more people using it for the other activities."
Emerson Point Preserve and Robinson Preserve along Perico Bay each have between 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year, Dersch said.
The county has nearly 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat preserves, which are popular with photographers and other visitors for the native plants and wildlife.
Duette Preserve, which is east of Parrish on the Great Florida Birding Trail, is the largest in the system and draws hundreds of bird watchers from around the world to catch a glimpse of crested caracaras, scrub jays and Southeastern American kestrels.
The preserve also allows managed hunting during appropriate game seasons, with 250-350 registered hunters during various times of the year.
"Most of the hunters are from within Manatee County," Dersch noted, "but they're still spending money locally for their sport."
They have to purchase gasoline to get to the remote preserve, he said. Some practice their shooting skills at the Manatee Archery and Gun Club, and have their bounty processed at a local butcher.
Coastal recreational fishing has been popular in the county for many years, said Capt. Scott Moore, who has been a fishing guide since 1979.
Most of his customers are local residents, but Moore said he has seen a big influx of out-of-town tourists.
"They love our area, especially the island," he said. "And fishing has always been great, thanks to the areas that have been preserved."
Pat Kelly, president of the Florida Guide Association, a 22-year-old organization of boat captains, said there may be close to 150 fishing guides in Manatee County, with 30 of them belonging to his group.
The study found that wildlife tourists spend more than $19 billion annually in the five coastal states, with recreational fishing bringing in about $8 billion, wildlife watching generated $6.5 billion, and hunting, $5 billion.
With $9.6 billion of that spending being trip-related expenditures, most of the money goes directly to local businesses, according to the 57-page report.
Jim Wyerman, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund, said the study will build awareness of the issues affecting coastal restoration projects.
"Our purpose was to document what an important economic driver wildlife tourism is to these states," Wyerman said.
To read the results of the study, and to see photo galleries of Manatee County's resources, go to www.bradenton.com.