- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

CHESAPEAKE CITY, Md. — It’s a gravelly, trash-strewn path along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in Cecil County — but plans are in the works to spend $18 million turning this waterside road into a biking and hiking path to draw tourists looking to enjoy nature.

No longer is tourism on the Eastern Shore just a matter of beachgoers in the summer. Cycling, kayaking, bird-watching and other outdoor pursuits have become an important slice of the industry in the last decade. Across the shore, local officials are seeing potential moneymakers in the rural countryside and waterways that a generation ago were typically seen from car windows by city visitors on their way to Ocean City.

Canoeing outfitters are popping up, some with more business than they can handle. More than a dozen water trails have been mapped for kayakers in the last three years. An annual bird-watching weekend on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland draws hundreds of people and will expand next year into Delaware and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“We’re at the spawning stage for ecotourism on the Eastern Shore,” said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Maryland Republican, who represents the shore and spent two weeks paddling and cycling across it this month to talk up what he calls a maturing industry.

Wearing a golf shirt and baseball cap, Mr. Gilchrest set off with Cecil County officials recently to hike along the canal and discuss the area’s potential for nature tourism. Nature tourists pump money into rural areas without changing them, he said, making it economically possible to preserve pastoral places even as farming continues to decline.

“Economic viability lies not with shopping plazas, not with subdivisions. Economic viability lies with eagles, with blue herons. It lies with walking trails for children. It lies with water trails for kayakers,” he said.

Tourism officials say nature tourism on the shore has grown from a fledgling push in the mid-1990s to a major part of the vacation economy.

“It’s growing at a rate we’re very pleased with,” said Marci Ross of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a remarkable growth.”

The state isn’t sure how many nature tourists come to the Eastern Shore, nor are they clear on the financial effect of ecotourism. But they say anecdotal evidence shows that nature tourism has hit the mainstream, and hoteliers and small towns across the shore are taking notice.

Worcester County, the only county to study the economic effect of nature tourism, concluded in 2002 that it amounted to $187 million a year in that county.

“The surge just really happened in the last five years. It’s enormously popular,” Miss Ross said.

Laura Murray of Dorchester County can attest to the change. A scientist with the University of Maryland who works in Cambridge, she and a neighbor started “Peake Paddle Tours” four years ago. At the time, there weren’t many outfitters who led canoe or kayaking tours.

Now her business is booming. In the summer, the company sometimes books two or three days of tour groups at $100 per person.

“It used to be that people would only come over to go to the beach in the summer and hunt in the winter,” said Miss Murray, a 30-year resident of the Eastern Shore. “Now people are stopping to see all the other things. Most of our business is people coming to the shore for vacation.”

In 1998, county tourism promoters from across the shore banded together to explore the potential for ecotourism. Today, the group called Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences, or DLITE, fields calls year-round from innkeepers and others looking for tips on how to cash in on nature tourism. At the canal walk, almost a dozen local officials showed up to learn about the proposed bikeway along the canal.

Chesapeake City Council member Natalie Gentry said she has seen a noticeable increase in nature tourists.

“Twenty years ago, it wasn’t a booming tourist town,” she said. “Now more tourists are coming. On the weekends, you see them with their bikes and their camping gear. It’s a huge change.”

In Talbot County, tourism authorities created 10 “water trails” in the last 14 months to draw kayakers and canoeists. They printed 10,000 brochures about the trails and ran out soon after printing them.

“People are embracing the outdoors and ecotourism much more than they did 10 years ago,” said Debbi Dodson, director of Talbot’s tourism office. “We have seven outfitters now, all new in the last decade. It’s really caught on.”

The growth of nature tourism has environmental groups seeing new hope for limiting development here. That’s because local elected officials may be more willing to preserve open landscapes if they bring in visitors.

“If we’re going to protect this stuff, we need to show why it’s economically viable to do so,” said Dave Wilson of Maryland Coastal Bays, a nonprofit environmental group and member of DLITE.

Back at the canal, Mr. Gilchrest passes only one family during his two-hour hike, four cyclers enjoying near isolation along the water. The Republican congressman conceded that most people now see the C&D; Canal only from bridges overhead. But he predicted big gains to come from nature tourism here.

“The baby boom generation is looking for new adventures. They may not want to go to Kenya or the Arctic Circle, but they’d like to see a pleasant, rural atmosphere,” he said.

Which is just the atmosphere Eastern Shore promoters say they have.

“You can really get out into the wilderness without getting on a plane or driving seven, eight hours. It’s right here,” Mr. Wilson said.

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