From boating to birding, nature tourism takes flight on island
In just a few hours walking around Galveston Island, Greg Whittaker might see 50 or 60 different species of birds, he said.
“I have been down here on the island since 1985, and mainly in the last 15 years have started focusing a little more on the bird diversity that’s down here,” said Whittaker, chairman of the Galveston County Audubon Group. “You get the sandhill cranes, you get the waterfowl, you get the shorebird activity.”
That activity isn’t going unnoticed.
Diversity in bird species is just one part of Galveston’s natural environment luring more and more visitors to the island.
The island in recent years has experienced an uptick in nature tourism activity, an industry that in Galveston centers around birding, boating and fishing.
“Historically, culturally and environmentally, we have some real jewels here,” said Kelly de Schaun, executive director of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees.
The park board promotes tourism and maintains beaches in Galveston.
The city hasn’t always recognized the natural beauty of the island or the ways it could monetize that beauty, de Schaun said.
But more robust infrastructure, such as trails and observation towers, could encourage more people to travel to the island for nature-based vacations, she said.
“I hear repeatedly from recreational enthusiasts that we don’t have enough launches, ways to get into the Gulf from Galveston,” de Schaun said.
Regardless of whether the infrastructure’s there yet, the tourists are.
Capt. Greg Ball, of fishing charter company Wave Dancer Charters, runs about 650 trips a year, more than twice as many as when he started taking people on fishing trips in 2011, he said.
“Galveston is getting recognized as a fishing destination,” Ball said. “The business is there.”
Galveston Sea Ventures has experienced similar growth, owner Shane Cantrell said. He ran 300 trips with about four people each last year, he said.
“People are more and more leaning toward experienced-based,” Cantrell said.
He sees a wide range of clients, he said. In the summer, he mainly caters to families but he also hosts groups of friends and retired couples, he said.
Kristine Rivers sees the same diversity of visitors on her birding tours, she said. She founded and leads tours with Birding for Fun, which focuses on casual trips.
Galveston’s a great place for experienced birders, but what’s unique about the island is its year-round offerings for veterans and newbies alike, Rivers said.
“Galveston is an amazing, amazing place to bird,” Rivers said. “When people typically think about birding, they think about going into the woods and trying to picture things in the treetops that are hard to see. In Galveston, you’re seeing larger birds that stay put.”
Her business also has experienced a recent rise in activity, she said.
Promoting nature tourism also plays into another island goal of promoting winter visitation, said Julie Ann Brown, executive director of Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council.
The nonprofit promotes nature experiences on the island.
Fishing, boating and birding offer unique and less-crowded experiences during the traditional off-season and can drive tourist dollars to the island, Brown said.
“That’s what we should really be striving for, because nature tourists are those high-value visitors,” Brown said. “They come to town, they leave it cleaner than they find it because they pick up trash while they’re here.”
Galveston’s winter tourist economy has been growing steadily for the past decade. In the 2009 to 2010 fiscal year, the park board collected $2.5 million in hotel occupancy taxes from September to February, which it redistributed to park board and city funds, according to collection records.
In the 2017 to 2018 year, the board brought in $6.3 million during that same time period, according to records.
Fishing tournaments and birding trips during the winter also are rising in popularity.
Last year was the first for the Galveston Fishing Rodeo, a month-long tournament organized by the Galveston Professional Boatmen’s Association, Ball, association president, said.
And by late January, the April birding festival FeatherFest already had people registered from 19 different states, Brown said.
Shelia Hargis, president of the Texas Ornithological Society, traveled to Galveston in January for the society’s winter meeting, but she visits Galveston often, she said.
“We just have different birds this time of year than we’ll have when most of us are in Galveston,” Hargis said. “The two things that I want to do when I’m in Galveston is see lots of birds and eat seafood.”
Promoting this growing industry will be the key to maintaining it, nature advocates said.
Cantrell agrees with de Schaun that Galveston has more work to do when it comes to recognizing and promoting its own natural beauty, he said.
“People who live on the island, like myself, we don’t really realize what we have here,” Cantrell said. “If we don’t realize it, it’s hard to help other people realize it.”
But if Galveston can grow this industry, it will prove good for the island and good for visitors, he said.
“They can get an experience with their family,” Cantrell said. “People can tell those stories forever and ever.”