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By Guy Leonard, County Times
HOLLYWOOD, Md. (June 18, 2009) -- St. Mary’s County has more than just its history to attract tourists. It also has its natural environment, and county officials say they are hoping to cash in on that.
The idea of using eco-tourism to bring in money to the county and diversify the economy is not a new one, said Bob Schaller, director of the county’s Department of Economic and Community Development, but it has come under renewed focus after a visit from some George Washington University students last spring.
Schaller said that the tourism industry master’s degree candidates came down to tour the county as part of their final project, and the student whose argument won the favor of a panel was the one who proposed marketing some of the county’s natural resources for recreation purposes.
“We have this wonderful landscape, just being such a unique county,” Schaller said. “We have a lot of water and our culture is based on that.
“Some people might look at the shoreline for a sunset but others look at it to get a kayak in the water.”
One of the issues hampering the county from taking full advantage of the water as an eco-tourism resource is that there is only so much public water access, Schaller said.
But that may change with the state’s purchase of formerly owned Jesuit land at Kitts Point south of the Webster Field Annex and south of Compton that could provide that critical access, he said.
Another piece of the puzzle will be to advertise and brand the county as an eco- tourism destination and tie that to major events al- ready here for bigger draws.
County Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said that the county could turn in the same success as the Florida Keys in going to eco-tourism.
“Our dynamic is much the same, surrounded by water,” Jarboe said. “It would make a lot of sense.”
The kayak launches in Great Mills and most recently at the Leonardtown Wharf were examples of the kind of activity linked to eco-tourism found in the county.
“You have it here already happening,” Jarboe said. “It’s just not recognized as eco-tourism yet.”
The county has engaged in a major push for tourist dollars around its role as the place where colonists first arrived in Maryland in 1634; events celebrating the state’s 375th birthday are happening at St. Mary’s City and other locations around the county this weekend.
County economic development officials are also pushing for more hotel and lodge space construction to help sustain more and more visitors.