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The new site brings together trails and tourism in a way that hasn’t happened before. Now people can learn about all kinds of services near a given trail that lets them book entire trail vacations in Florida.

arrow From the Summer 2010 American Trails Magazine

 

Trails Website Will Green Florida Tourism, Florida Economy

By Herb Hiller

A pair of nation-leading Florida institutions in fall will launch one of America’s first state trails-tourism website. People worldwide will be able to book Florida trail vacations complete with places to stay and eat, optionally also using outfitters and tour operators.

Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT) has supplied the data for more than 3,500 miles of cycling, hiking, paddling and equestrian trails. Visit Florida is developing the website.

photo of cyclist looking over water

Taking a break on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. Photo by John Moran,
Courtesy of FDEP Office of Greenways & Trails

See http://www.visitflorida.com/trails/

It was OGT’s team-leading effectiveness in developing trails that in 2008 earned Florida charter honors from American Trails as #1 Trails State in America. The public-private Visit Florida partnership attracts 80 million visitors a year to the Sunshine State. The East Coast Greenway Alliance brought the two together in the project and chairs its working group.

Stakes are high. Ecotourism will likely gain firmer hold because of the project. That in turn could more quickly green the state economy. And although tourism has long fed out-of-control development by exposing endless vacationers to endless subdivision promotion, trails rank high in what new homebuyers seek. That may be especially true of those considering Florida relocation for high-pay high-tech jobs that the state increasingly promotes precisely to diversify its economy away from sprawl and tourism. And although part of tourism itself, ecotourism promises to re-mix a product that for decades has been synonymous with beach resorts, golf and theme parks. So much the better should oil spoil Florida beaches. Inland springs, for example, that more than a hundred years ago first attracted visitors for frolic and cave dives before paddlers discovered their issuing creeks and rivers, will gain renewed attention. By far, Florida’s trails of all sorts also lay inland.

Only theme parks by their visitor numbers challenge beaches for mass appeal. Trails differently connect many distinct Florida places with equally distinct vicinities. Think central Florida’s trail-friendly Lakeland where Florida Southern College along a three-mile lakeside trail claims the largest single collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright; or the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail close by the former orange grove hamlet home of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Also inland and surrounded by vast sugarcane fields and cattle ranches is the 110-mile off-road bike, hike and horseback trail atop the dike that surrounds big Lake Okeechobee. Inland also, the Henry Flagler Cross-Volusia Trail, a 20-mile canopied horseback corridor through subtropical forest between storybook Lake Helen and historic New Smyrna Beach.

Regardless of what happens to beaches, the new website is no one-time fling between the two sponsoring agencies, but after five years a full romance.

In 2005, OGT and Visit Florida began collaborating on a series of trail brochures. Each in the series detailed some two-dozen top-ranked cycling, hiking, paddling or equestrian trails. The brochures have remained popular to the point that OGT reports its online version of the first in the series -- the cycling trails brochure -- continues to attract 50,000 average monthly downloads. It was that result that helped spur the East Coast Greenway Alliance to propose the current trails-tourism website. Now the promise of the website alone has spurred its own next moves.

Three weeks before the website launch, the site will focus the presentation of a green initiative along the St. Johns River, at 310 miles Florida’s longest and one of only 14 rivers first included in the American Heritage system.

photo of paddlers in plastic kayak

Paddlers in the Florida Keys along the Florida Circumnavigational
Saltwater Paddling Trail. Photo by John Moran,
Courtesy of FDEP Office of Greenways & Trails

The event takes place at a Trails Summit that’s part of a two-day River Summit organized by the not-for-profit St. Johns River Alliance. Chair of the River Alliance is University of North Florida President John Delaney. Delaney, while two-term mayor of Jacksonville at the turn of the century, led the Preservation Project that underwrote the largest park system of any city in America, including the plan for an ambitious urban trails system along, across and around the St. Johns.

The Trails Summit will discuss a greenway-blueway the length of the river and the growth of a locally emphatic lodgings system already partly in place through B&Bs, an historic hotel, fish camps and park cabins.

The Trails Summit will also outline plans for tours of the river that starting in fall 2011 will combine train travel, paddling, cycling and pontoon boating for 10-day-to-two-week inland vacations. It was the north-flowing St. Johns that during Reconstruction opened Florida to tourism, as northerners embarked on steamboats in Jacksonville for an up-river glimpse of Florida’s steamy sub-tropics

Only days before the Visit Florida launch, Bike Florida will start its third season of weeklong tours along the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop that prefigures the combined blueway-greenway. When complete, River-to-Sea will become the longest loop trail in the American Southeast. Bike Florida tours will use the 45 miles already paved and off-road as well as sections along rural and low-traffic roads. Tours starting in October will begin and end in St. Augustine, which welcomed Bike Florida to advance its own ecotourism positioning, newly as part of St. Johns County’s re-branded Historic Coast.

So that while the new website marks a trails and greening milestone, it’s also as much promise of Florida’s continued leading trails role as effect. Sole-purpose bridges already carry trails across busy highways in urban Pinellas, Hernando, Orange and Seminole counties, across the Suwannee River in Levy County, and across sections of open water through the Florida Keys. Next will be bridges in Sarasota County and Volusia as part of a 50-plus-mile rail-trail that roughly parallels I-4 between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Also already in place are two greenway bridges that uniquely extend woodland habitat over interstate highways in Flagler and Marion counties.

photo of cyclists by canal

Mock of the new Florida Trails Tourism website

Trail vacationers will be able to gain access to the new website by a URL that, once chosen, will be announced through consumer advertising. They’ll also be able to click on www.visitflorida.com and follow the prompts or click on display ads that Visit Florida will post to the site, then find trails by name, type, or location. In addition to places to stay and eat, the site will link to culture and history sites, to spas, law enforcement agencies, trail blogs and more. The site will be the primary resource in promoting and marketing trail-based tourism, says Visit Florida New Product Development Director Tiffany McCaskill. “It will be the one-stop-shop for everything trails related in Florida.”

Visit Florida will evaluate how the site performs by numbers of site visits and by how engaged visitors appear to be. “We’ll measure success by how many pages those visitors view. Is it one page and then they leave -- or ‘bounce’? We’ll want a low bounce rate,” says Visit Florida Internet Manager Jill Stewart. “And what signals do we get about intent to travel? Do they click through to learn about accommodations and other businesses? Do they click through to the deep link to the OGT site to read more about a trail? These would show deep interest.”

OGT Assistant Director Jim M. Wood points out that although the OGT site itself has long supplied trail details, “The new site brings together trails and tourism in a way that hasn’t happened before. Now people can learn about all kinds of services near a given trail that lets them book entire trail vacations. The new site raises the visibility of trail towns for visitors while at the same time we’ll be pushing the threshold of what trails mean to communities.”

Wood adds that as word about the site gets around Florida, he’s getting emails from trail managers to make sure their trails are included. “Visit Florida has set no limits to the number of trails the new site can include, so we’ll keep adding to the list,” he says.

And, together with Visit Florida, keep adding to Florida trails leadership.


For more information:

New Trails website: www.visitflorida.com/trails/

Visit Florida, www.visitflorida.com

Florida Office of Greenways and Trails, www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt

East Coast Greenway Alliance, www.greenway.org

St. Johns River Alliance, www.stjohnsriveralliance.com

Bike Florida, www.bikeflorida.org

Writer Herb Hiller in 1977 led the start of the modern-day Florida bicycling movement, and writes frequently about ecotourism.

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