"Ten years ago, when you went to a city meeting, you could go through
a whole meeting and never hear one word about the beach or our ecology,” Alderwoman
Tara Rios Ybarra said.
That’s changing, she said.
Among the advances is the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. When
completed, it will become the ninth site of the World Birding Center.
The 50-acre site is under construction just south of the SPI Convention Centre.
The opening is planned for late 2008 or early 2009.
Other changes are in the works. In the last couple years, the town has launched
a series of special events and public relations efforts, including an Ecotourism
Summit, first proposed by Rios-Ybarra and launched in 2006.
Other special events have included a Sea Life Day to teach beachgoers about coastal
flora and fauna as well as resources for helping distressed wildlife.
In 2005, South Padre Island joined the Bahia Grande restoration program as a
The town has also organized pick-ups for recyclable items twice monthly and authorized
code enforcers to distribute $5 vouchers for people seen around town collecting
Several officials have helped create an anti-litter campaign, and Alderwoman
JoAnn Evans pushed for revisions to the handling of commercial and residential
dumpsters to help prevent problems with wind scattering trash or eyesores along
Recently, Evans also started a native plant of the month program to educate residents
about species that grow well on the Island.
“In the last year, we saw the butterfly garden (built by volunteers and
the town) go in,” Evans added. “The butterflies are as much a part
of ecotourism as the birds.”
Evans also hopes to obtain official membership status for the town with the Keep
America Beautiful program, which would provide grant opportunities. South Padre
Island is currently registered in the program through the SPI Garden Club, she
Even town committees such as the Bay Area Task Force and the Beach and Dune Task
Force are generating more programs and recommendations to improve the town’s
The Chamber of Commerce has implemented a volunteer program called Random Acts
of Green to help landscape intersections across town, with an emphasis on native
“The Island is looking for ways to become greener,” Evans said.
She added that the town’s ordinances have a special provision that allows
property owners not to mow lots during certain months of the year that coordinate
with birding migrations. The provision helps create shelter and habitat for fatigued
These efforts and others, some say, are examples of the Island’s commitment
to that change.
“The goal is that we’re not just saying we’re an ecotourism
destination,” Rios-Ybarra said. “Instead, we’re becoming one.”
Tourists do place an importance on the environment, said Dan Quandt, the executive
director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I think there is a greater emphasis on ecotourism when you look at studies
that ask what people are interested in,” Quandt said. “In the old
days, people loaded the kids in the station wagon and took them somewhere. Now,
people want certain experiences, such as experiencing culture.”
One of the highest priorities for many tourists after the beach is ecotourism,
Quandt said. People want to go where they can see nature.
“Ecotourism is obviously just a critical part of life here,” Quandt
said. “It starts with the beach, and we have approximately 400 different
species of birds that come through here.”
South Padre Island doesn’t single out niche markets for advertising campaigns,
whether its ecotourism, fishing or weddings, Quandt said.
“However, in the majority of our ads, there’s always at least one
picture that promotes ecotourism or nature tourism,” he said.
Also, Island officials have never ranked the strength of niche markets, but ecotourism,
fishing, watersports, weddings and other draws are important pieces of the Island’s
Still, the CVB does have ways to promote nature tourism, more specifically. The
Island’s CVB participates in a Rio Grande Valley nature advertising cooperative,
which promotes ecotourism in the entire region.
“For example, this year the coop hosted 19 journalists, generating more
than a million dollars of publicity for the Rio Grande Valley,” Quandt
The journalists come from throughout the world, with many from European countries.
British journalism trips to the Valley have increased 20 percent over the previous
year through the nature cooperative, Quandt said.
Building ecotourism doesn’t necessarily start with advertising though.
Rather, it starts with maintaining the beach and other natural areas, Quandt
The panel of experts at the town’s first Ecotourism Summit echoed that
idea, saying that the first step to promoting ecotourism would be to eliminate
litter, Rios-Ybarra said.
“How can we claim to be an eco-friendly city when we’re not recycling
or picking up our garbage?” she said.
The goal, Evans said, is to be “clean and green.”
And wildlife programs, such as those by Sea Turtle Inc., attract thousands of
tourists each year. This year, South Padre Island highlighted the sea turtle
nesting season with a series of events called Sea Turtle Days, which was first
organized by residents.