The NJMC has spent much of the last year publicizing its master plan, which focuses on environmental preservation co-existing with regionally planned redevelopment. This is the first time that they have formally presented the environmental component as an economic engine of its own.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
The rehabilitation of the Meadowlands has created unprecedented opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts both locally and nationwide.
"Ultimately, what we are trying to do is create a destination for birdwatchers and people to explore the area on walking trails and by boat," said NJMC Executive Director, Bob Ceberio.
According to Ceberio, ecotourism is a natural function for the 8,400 acres protected under the master plan. Canoeing, kayaking, walking paths, a wide variety of species of birds and wildlife, pontoon boat eco-tours of the Hackensack River and other nature-oriented activities already exist in the Meadowlands and will be increased over the next few years as more land is acquired and more programs instated.
A ripe marketing niche
According to a 1996 American Birding Association survey, $31 billion was spent in the United States on wildlife watching activities alone that year, including $5 billion in food and lodging. The Meadowlands has over 260 bird species, 25 of which are endangered or threatened in the State of New Jersey. The NJMC hopes to help local hotels reach out to bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
"[Local hotels] are incredibly busy with businesspeople Monday to Thursday, and then there is a drop off [from] Friday to Sunday," said Ceberio. "There is potential for that ecotourism niche, such as providing an 'Explore the Meadowlands' package."
Ceberio noted that bird watchers from all over the country will travel as far as Canada or to the western United States for their hobby.
"It's an alternative form of untapped economic support," said NJMC spokesperson, Chris Gale. "[We hope that] Birders spend money locally, eat in local restaurants and start talking about Secaucus as a great location."
In 2001, 1.64 million residents and 688,000 visitors watched wildlife in New Jersey, spending a total of $1.235 billion dollars, according to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study.
Eric Stiles, Vice President of Conservation for the New Jersey Audubon Society, said that in addition to external marketing, a wildlife refuge must contain amenities for birdwatchers. Although Stiles said 22 percent of the population is involved in some kind of bird watching, ranging from hanging a bird feeder to traveling globally, he added that your average bird watcher only knows about 12 species of birds.
"You have to create signs and interpretive tools," said Stiles. "A unified vision for marketing the Meadowlands would include providing viewing platforms, trails and safe parking."
The NJMC, NJ Audubon Society and Hackensack Riverkeeper have been working hard at developing educational and tourism programs to make things accessible to the average visitor.
Networking is key
"In the mid 90s," said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan. "We were heavily engaged in a battle to preserve the wetlands. One of our strategies was to bring people out to see the wetlands and [to go] out into the Meadowlands so they could see with their own eyes the abundant wildlife and witness the habitat improvements taking place."
Some of the attendees of the Governor's Tourism Conference included representatives from different regions of New Jersey, such as the shore and the highlands, as well as travel agents and members of the hospitality and food and beverage industries.
"This is a good opportunity to network," said Ceberio. "You have all your tourism experts in one place."
According to Jim Kirkos, President of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, the ecotourism initiative will help local businesses by providing an additional dimension to the area.
"It certainly balances and rounds out the resources available," said Kirkos. "If I'm a corporate executive who likes to fish or enjoys the outdoors and I'm here for three or four days, I might take an eco-cruise instead of catching a movie."
Kirkos added that new visitors will also be important.
"We're becoming more interesting," said Kirkos. "The fact is that if you're an environmentalist who likes to bird watch, you might come here for three or four days to bird watch, fish and go canoeing."
Ceberio noted that there is even a potentially untapped market in New York City, since the Meadowlands is less than five miles from Times Square.
"You can get just get off the train at Secaucus Junction and walk to Laurel Hill Park," said Gale.
Laurel Hill Park is the launch point for pontoon boat eco-cruises and canoe tours run by NJMC and Hackensack Riverkeeper, which also rents canoes and kayaks. There is also bird watching at Mill Creek Wildlife Refuge.
The Governor's Conference on Tourism is a starting point for developing a marketing plan that works with the needs of local businesses.
According to Captain Bill Sheehan, head of Hackensack Riverkeeper, Riverkeeper already brings 5000 people a year on eco-tours from Laurel Hill Park, 3,500 of which are from out of the area.
Kirkos said that his organization has recently begun to aggressively market the region as a travel destination, and is looking to establish a regional visitors center in Rutherford.
The NJMC hopes to work with local businesses to maximize the usefulness of eco-tourism on the region.
"We haven't gotten into heavy marketing mode," said Gale.
Starting with the conference, the NJMC will begin talking to tourism and environmental experts to find out what they need. Gale added that the Meadowlands has already appeared in several alternative travel guidebooks including: "Nature Walks in New Jersey," by Glenn Scherer, "Quiet Water New Jersey Canoe & Kayak Guide," by Kathy Kenley and "Outdoor Escapes New York City," by Theodore W. Scull For a schedule of 2004 NJMC pontoon boat cruises, visit www.njmeadowlands.gov/ec/public/2004cruises.doc