NAPLES — After sounding a conch shell on the Sweet Liberty in Naples, Capt. Mitchell Naurath departed the City Dock on a recent morning.
A group of 39 passengers, along with two Southwest Florida Conservancy naturalists, climbed aboard the Naples catamaran sailing tour for a morning of sightseeing in the Gulf of Mexico headed to Keewaydin Island.
Naurath, a certified naturalist, shared a few facts with the group along the 3-hour ecotour, talking about the three kinds of mangroves and Osprey nests.
Tourism with an environmental flavor is a facet of Southwest Florida's economy and a local organization has created a new environmental certification program to recognize businesses that are using the best ecotourism practices.
Sweet Liberty, a sailboat tour operator in Naples, has had a focus on the environment for 11 years.
"Ecotourism is of great importance to our destination. The more people that experience our unique and pristine wilderness areas through the guidance of responsible and knowledgeable tour operators, the more they will likely become supporters of and advocates for conservation and sustainable preservation of our ecosystems," said JoNell Modys, spokeswoman for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Many travelers today are seeking authentic experiences where they can experience nature, learn about this part of the world and then participate in helping to sustain it for others."
Recently, the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism, which got its start in Southwest Florida, launched a new environmental certification program. The nonprofit did so after seeing a demand from environmental educators and operators for standards that recognize a code of ecotourism ethics benefiting travelers and tour operators, as well as Florida's environment.
The nonprofit educational society was incorporated in 2001 to establish and maintain a professional code of ecotourism ethics to encourage an awareness and appreciation of Florida's natural and cultural history. More than a year ago, the society expanded to include statewide membership.
Lee County's tourism bureau appreciates the society's efforts.
"What we have here in Lee County is our natural environment," said Tamara Pigott, Lee County's tourism executive director.
Lee County promotes tourism as a "one-on-one experience with Mother Nature," Pigott said.
Pigott said Lee County has seen a growth in the popularity of ecotourism offerings.
Ecotourism activities ranked high on Lee County's annual tourism report of trip activities. The beaches remained a top draw for visitors last year.
In Lee's 2010 tourism report, which surveyed 2,440 people, 94 percent said they enjoy the beach; 39 percent shelling; 24 percent watching wildlife, 6 percent kayaking/canoeing and 5 percent guided tours.Apart from visiting friends, one of the reasons why the Wilson family, of Shepherd, Mich., visits Naples is to enjoy ecofriendly trips where they might get to see a dolphin, Lynn Wilson said as she enjoyed sun rays on the Sweet Liberty.
In 2006, the society offered a basic certification, which more than 10 operators received. Since then, the society has developed a better, objective measurement point system for a new certification program, said Rebecca Beck, the society's board chairwoman and the director of education for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Certified members will be recognized as preferred service providers committed to using best practices. The certification program measures the practices of ecotour operators and attractions according to rigorous assessments and a high set of using best practices that aren't negatively affecting the environment, Beck said.
Operators and attractions can achieve certification status of one to four stars.
Today, the organization has nearly 60 members. Three are certified and six more are working on it.
Certified members are Fort Myers-based GAEA Guides, Chokoloskee-based Everglades Area Tours and Grande Tours in Charlotte County.
Certified operators can use the group's seal and logo to promote themselves as ethical operators. They also get a separate page on the society's website.
"I look at it as a good housekeeping stamp of approval," Pigott said.
Pigott said ecotourism is also important for customers who often look for independent evaluations of service providers.
Charles Wright, Everglades Area Tours owner, said a certification from the society is helpful because the industry lacks regulations.
"This certification process allows us to distinguish ourselves from other operators," Wright said.
Everglades Area Tours has operated since 1999. Ecotours far surpass the company's fishing tours in the Everglades area, said Wright, who has been a guide since the mid-90s.
While on tours, Wright focuses on education, environmental stewardship, heritage and the culture of the area.
"Ecotourism plays a crucial role in educating the public and provides access to the natural world," Wright said.
Everglades Area Tours provides naturalist-led tours from birding photography to kayaking ecotours, power boat ecotours and walking ecotours.
GAEA Guides, which has been open 11 years, was the first business certified by the society and received 3 out of 4 possible stars.
"It's important to teach people about the environment and how important it is to keep it intact," said Connie Langmann, owner of GAEA Guides and a Master Florida Naturalist.
GAEA Guides operates guided kayak nature tours from all the waterways in Southwest Florida, including Wiggins Pass and the Cocohatchee River, Imperial River and Estero Bay. All tours are led by a certified Master Florida Naturalist. During tours, guides talk about the ecology of the estuary, and the importance of mangroves and birds.
However, not everyone supports the new certification program.
Capt. Lenny Wassmer, owner of the Sweet Liberty, a former member of the society, said the society is going in the right direction, but he has no plans to apply for certification.
"We do what we do and I think we are very ecological sensitive," he said while mopping his catamaran.
Ken Strasen, owner of Master Bait and Tackle in Bonita Springs, said there are enough rules and laws already in Lee County for fishing and charter tours.
"I don't see that there is any need for it," Strasen said. "I think somebody is going to make money and not go toward the environment."