Diversifying Farm and Ranch Income Through Nature Tourism
There is a growing interest among agricultural producers in diversifying farm and ranch income by providing wildlife-associated recreational opportunities. Many ranches in Texas already derive substantial income from hunting. Opportunities exist for attracting other segments of the recreation market, such as birders, wildlife watchers, hikers, mountain bikers, or nature photographers, the so-called nature tourism business.
For example, ranchers with established hunting businesses might consider marketing non-consumptive activities such as birding or biking during the non-hunting season. This can fill empty lodging facilities and bring in off-season income. Opportunities also exist for landowners and entrepreneurs interested in developing tourism-related businesses such as B&B's that specialize in birding and wildlife watching.
Hunting outfitters are an established part of wildlife-associated recreation in Texas. With the growing interest in diversification among landowners, opportunities abound for the "new breed of outfitter" specializing in interpreting the natural and cultural resources of Texas for wildlife watchers, birders, photographers and those interested in history and culture.
Although opportunities exist to profit from the growing demand for outdoor recreation, it is important to be realistic about your assets, management ability, personal style and preferences, and how new endeavors integrate into your existing business. Nature tourism is not a cure-all to "save the ranch." It can diversify income, but those in the business will tell you that it takes commitment and vision. It is not for everyone.
Providing recreational opportunities is a people-oriented business. It's not a business for you if you don't enjoy dealing with people and providing services to your customers. The ability to enjoy the company of others, to share your experiences and knowledge with those of different backgrounds and to be flexible enough to adjust to people with personalities and tastes different from your own are important attributes for success in a "people business" such as nature tourism.
In developing a nature-based tourism enterprise, the first step is to inventory the natural and cultural resources that form the basis of what you are selling. Ask yourself these questions:
- What does your ranch have that is unique or different from others? (Think about plants, animals, geology, local history and ranching heritage.)
- What are your ranch's special habitats and how can you provide viewing opportunities? (Think about watering areas, wildlife gardens close to lodging, feeders, blinds, elevated observation areas, trails and boardwalks.)
- Get outside perspective-remember the common or ordinary to you may be of great interest to urban residents or visitors from other states and countries.
Nature tourists are looking for the natural, historical and cultural heart of the place they are visiting, and their defining principle is authenticity. They are interested in what is real, and they want to be immersed in a rich natural, cultural or historical experience. Focus on providing an enjoyable experience that also teaches. Good interpretation of the resources adds immensely to the learning experience and overall enjoyment. A satisfying experience that meets visitor expectations will generate repeat customers and positive word-of-mouth recommendations.
Once you have an adequate assessment of your natural and cultural resources, think about what activities you could offer that best fit with your current operation and interests. Start slow and focus on what you can do best based on your resource assessment and financial resources. Consider the preferences and abilities of other family members and employees. Be honest with yourself about your temperament, time, management ability and preferences for certain type of activities and people. Examples of activities offered on Texas ranches include:
- Guided bird and wildflower walks
- Special viewing areas for hummingbirds
- Wildlife watching from blinds (turkey, deer, birds)
- "Owl prowls" at night
- Stargazing in dark, rural settings, sometimes with telescopes
- Special hikes to unique or scenic areas
- Birdwatching or wildlife viewing by canoe or kayak
- Fossil walks along creek beds
- Interpretive walks featuring geology, historic sites, ranching heritage
- Mountain bike trails
- Horseback riding trails
- Camping and backpacking
- Chuck-wagon meals with music or storytelling
- Observing or participating in working livestock
- Just relaxing and experiencing a rural setting with family or friends
For many agricultural landowners, marketing nature-tourism activities is the most difficult part of starting a new business. It often is easier for people of the land to understand the resources themselves than how to sell the experiences of those resources to others. Marketing is vitally important, however, as the time and energy invested in researching and developing a business endeavor is wasted if potential customers are not aware of its existence. Although a full discussion of marketing is beyond the scope of this article, here are some of the most important principles:
First, identify the market segment that you want to attract. Segmentation allows businesses to divide a homogenous market into smaller groups, see the diversity among customers and concentrate on pleasing a segment that might find their product or service attractive.
One of the most valuable things you can do in developing your business is to visit an existing business that has a product or market segment similar to the one you are considering. If you want to attract birders, visit an enterprise that offers birdwatching experiences or targets a particular segment of the birding market. Searching the Internet for birding-related websites provides contact information, as well as information on activities and pricing.
Networking with others involved in the tourism industry provides valuable information and contacts. In order to meet potential customers and make contact with others offering nature-based tourism opportunities, attend some birding and nature festivals. Develop a close relationship with your nearest Chamber of Commerce or CVB if you want to establish your business as a destination for travelers to your area.
Encourage partnerships between two or more businesses so that everyone benefits. Partnering allows small businesses to pool talent and resources to create a product that is more attractive than any one business can provide on its own. Tour packages are a good example. Cooperating with other landowners, lodging facilities and restaurants in your area attracts more visitors to your destination and encourages them to stay longer and spend more money.
Texans are blessed with an abundance of wildlife and natural beauty, and opportunities abound for sharing this natural heritage with fellow Texans and visitors from all over the world. For some landowners, diversifying agricultural income through nature-based tourism can be both enjoyable and profitable.