As Tucson's $2.5 billion tourism engine revs up this month, the usual crowds of conventioneers and spa dwellers will make their way to Tucson and Southern Arizona. But another type of visitors -- "nature tourists" -- will also come to the region, plunk down their binoculars and bags in hotels and inns, and contribute nearly $1.5 billion to Arizona's growing nature tourism industry.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Forget the la-di-da spa treatments and putting greens.
As Tucson's $2.5 billion tourism engine revs up this month, the usual crowds of conventioneers and spa dwellers will make their way to Tucson and Southern Arizona.
But another type of visitors -- "nature tourists" -- will also come to the region, plunk down their binoculars and bags in hotels and inns, and contribute nearly $1.5 billion to Arizona's growing nature tourism industry.
"Some travelers might go for golf or shopping," said Rick Reeve, 61, a retired chemistry professor from British Columbia visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "Not us. When we go on vacation our main focus is birding -- I mean, look around. There's scenery, sunshine and these gorgeous mountains. It's one of the best places in the world to look for birds."
National bird experts and naturalists agree, and hoteliers and tourism officials hope to continue to draw "nature tourists" and birders in coming years as they spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on trips and outings to watch wildlife. But they also worry about development swallowing up the habitat.
Armed with a local birding guidebook, Phyllis Standefer, 66, a retired high school English teacher from Seattle, has already spent 10 days hiking Madera Canyon and visiting the San Pedro River outside Sierra Vista.
"My cost is mostly with air fare and with eating," said Standefer, who has visited Southern Arizona's rural bird habitats four winters in a row. "But my time is spent mostly birding. It's a nice change of scenery from western Washington. It's nice to be out of traffic and out of civilization."
With the region's mountain ranges, deserts, migratory bird trails and more than 500 bird species, Southern Arizona ranks as a national destination for birders, said Jim Mallman, president of Watchable Wildlife Inc., a Minnesota nonprofit that teaches mostly rural communities about the economic potential of nature tourism and recreation.
Nature tourism -- a niche encompassing wildlife watching and activities like hiking in natural parks and forests -- is one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, he said.
There's growing interest in watching wildlife -- from butterflies to bobcats -- on trips but bird-watching is by far the most popular activity, Mallman said. Birders love to travel in the hopes of spotting new species, he said.
More than 588,000 non-Arizona residents came to the state in 2001 for such getaways and spent nearly $825 million for "wildlife-watching" activities, including food, lodging and travel costs, according to a survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A new survey is being conducted and is scheduled to be released this year.
Such hobbyists -- who typically earn between $40,000 and $75,000 -- attend several local bird festivals each year and plan vacations to spot sandhill cranes, Harris' hawks and area hummingbirds.
Nearly $485 million was spent on equipment such as binoculars and cameras, which breaks down to an average of $478 spent per tourist, according to the 2001 survey.
And interest in seeking birds is growing, spurred by baby boomers' retiring and taking more trips, said Kendall Kroesen, restoration program manager for the Tucson Audubon Society, one of the largest chapters in the country.
The Audubon Society often sees tourists at its retail store, 300 E. University Blvd., and travelers and hotels often contact the group about birding tours and programs.
"So many birders retire here," said Kroesen, adding that the Tucson group has grown from 3,000 to 4,000 registered members in the last two years. "People will travel for a chance to see rare birds. It's a good basis for tourism."
Programs attract birders
And like clockwork, birders continue to book at several area inns where education programs and daily bird watching trips are organized.
Most lodging owners and tour companies say they expect to see good business in coming months.
"This is where birders come throughout the year. Our resident birds don't often migrate," said Sharon Akron, owner of Bed and Bagels of Tucson, 10402 E. Glenn St., a nine-year-old East Side inn.
The three-guest-room inn features field guides, binoculars and bird portraits, plates and clocks throughout the house. Outside, bird feeders hang on trees, and hummingbirds and roadrunners often stop by to hang out.
Guests from as far away as Dubai and as close as Phoenix have stayed at the inn, Akron said.
"We see birds all the time. For us it's no big deal, but for others, it's something they'll spend money to see," she said.
Beatty's Guest Ranch at Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains also markets itself as a birders' paradise. It sits on 10 secluded acres at a 5,800-foot elevation in the mountains and near a hummingbird gathering spot.
"We get people from Europe, England, Canada, Australia and France," said Tom Beatty Sr., co-owner of the 10-year-old ranch. "We're going to see a big season starting here in April and lasting through October."
At 50-year-old Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, guests from as far away as England come each year to watch wildlife -- from wildcats and lizards to butterflies and birds, said Jane Holt, co-owner of the year-round lodge.
"Birders will look for birds everywhere," said Holt of guests who will rent $98-per-night rustic cabins for days or weeks at time. "People coming here aren't coming for luxury. It's mostly people who want to be in the mountains or canyons with wildlife."
Development a threat
There are some threats to the industry, however, as housing and commercial developments take hold near habitat and park areas, said Kroesen, the Tucson Audubon restoration program manager.
"We're seeing a boom with birding but places to go are shrinking," Kroesen said.
A hundred years ago, Southern Arizona and Tucson had rivers, trees and more habitats than today, he said. Now developers compete to build houses, hotels, commercial developments and sports complexes. That calls for conserving water and saving riparian habitats from drying up, he said.
The Lodge at Ventana Canyon, which sits on 300 acres near a bird refuge and the Coronado National Forest, works with local birders and Audubon programs.
The lodge's golf courses are certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, a designation that preserves natural areas and means they are "bird friendly," said Janet Hare, director of sales and marketing. Guests at the 50-suite lodge -- where one-night stays start at $249 -- have access to golf, fitness and spa amenities at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort next door.
"We'll do everything we can to maintain the natural areas for the birds while conserving the wild development," she said. "It's great, an opportunity for us to highlight birding to people who wouldn't normally think about it as a hobby."
--What: The Arizona Game and Fish Department will sponsor "How You and Your Community Can Profit from Nature Tourism" later this month. The workshop, presented by Watchable Wildlife Inc., explains how communities can capitalize on natural assets to improve the local tourism economy.
--When: The group plans to host a workshop in Phoenix on Jan. 26 and will hold its annual conference in Tucson this fall.
--Details: For information, contact Joe Yarchin at 602-789-3589.
"When we go on vacation our main focus is birding -- I mean, look around. There's scenery, sunshine and these gorgeous mountains. It's one of the best places in the world to look for birds."
Rick Reeve of British Columbia, at the Desert Museum
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services