Nebraska’s eco-tourism industry grows, and annual workshop those involved |

Nebraska’s eco-tourism industry grows, and annual workshop those involved

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The Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska has published a map showing “The Top 50 Ecotourism Sites in the Great Plains,” which highlights attractions from Montana to Oklahoma. For information, contact the Center for Great Plains Studies at or call (402) 472-3082.

More than 90 million people take part in some form of outdoor recreation, according to a survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“And,” said Daryl Jones, a wildlife professor at Mississippi State University and the MSU Extension Service, “they spend more than 145 billion dollars doing it.”

Jones spoke to more than 125 farmers, ranchers, tourism directors, community leaders and small business owners at the 11th annual Nebraska Agri/Eco-Tourism Workshop, held Feb. 22-24 in Grand Island, Neb.

The theme of the conference was “Share Your Story” and speakers and exhibitors presented ideas from their own experiences in setting up and running an agri-tourism or an eco-tourism operation. Attendees included representatives from towns and rural communities all across Nebraska and nearby states.

“Small business and community leaders need to stop worrying about the constraints of their communities and instead rally around their strengths.”

“According to the Fish & Wildlife survey, people spend upwards of $55 billion just for ‘wildlife watching’. That’s more than they spend for hunting and fishing,” Jones said. The survey showed that hunters account for $34 billion in expenditures and fishing $42 billion. “But those activities are only part of the outdoor recreation and tourism industry.”

Hiking, horse trail riding, vacation on a working farm or ranch, “U-Pik” vegetable and fruit growers, corn maze operations, bed and breakfast hosting, photography treks…the list of rural tourism possibilities is almost endless.

“For farmers and ranchers, tourism can be a good way to add diversification to their income possibilities. And, agri-tourism and eco-tourism can be a real boost for rural communities, too. Visitors bring extra income to lodging facilities, restaurants, grocery and hardware stores and other local businesses,” he said.

Kathy McKillip, director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, said the annual workshop is a great way for small business operators and tourism officials to share ideas and experiences.

“The trend is definitely up in Nebraska,” she said. “Whether it’s picking pumpkins, visiting rural wineries or seeing the stars from the Sandhills, more people are visiting all regions of Nebraska. Tourism is now Nebraska’s third largest industry.”

During workshop breakout sessions, Sam Nelson, economics professor at the University of Nebraska and director of the UNL Center for Entrepreneurship, discussed the goals and objectives for “building a startup culture” for new business ventures in rural communities.

“More and more, young people are wanting to get involved in small and growing companies, or start their own business,” Nelson said. “Whether a rural location or in a small town, new business operators have opportunities to be successful, if they’re willing to work hard and think outside the box.

“New business ventures don’t have to be high-tech. My grandfather started the first rural sanitation service in northeast Nebraska many years ago.”

Nelson says the global economy is gravitating more and more toward capitalism, citing the growing strength of the middle class in China and eastern Europe.

“Small business and community leaders need to stop worrying about the constraints of their communities and instead rally around their strengths,” he said.

Nelson says a start-up operation doesn’t necessarily need a formal business plan, either.

“Put your idea in 10 or 12 Power Point slides, or compose a three-minute oral presentation on what is your idea, why it can succeed, how you will price it, and who your competitors are,” he said. “If you put up a billboard in Times Square about your community, what would you say about it?”

How would you present it to the public? Answer that and you have the basis for a new startup business or a community project, Nelson added.

Workshop participants had several opportunities to observe examples of commercial operations tied to eco-tourism and agriculture.

Monday afternoon, they visited a mushroom grower on the outskirts of Grand Island, where a young entrepreneur has turned his lifelong interest in mushrooms into a commercial business, growing mushrooms for restaurants, stores and farmers’ markets as far away as Omaha.

The group also visited the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center near Alda, where thousands of people come every March to witness the spectacle of more than 500,000 Sandhill Cranes gathering in the Platte River on their way to breeding grounds in northern Canada. ❖

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