The Sunshine State might have been first in line when they handed out natural assets, sandy beaches and great weather not least among them. So it's no surprise Florida is touting its myriad environmental charms as it looks to solidify the tourism gains it's made despite last year's Gulf oil spill.
In particular, state tourism board Visit Florida is promoting so-called "green" travel options, along with lesser-known aquatic attractions, to potential vacationers, with an eye toward topping last year's 82.6 million visits, a crisis-defying 2.1% jump.
"I think consumers realize they can trust Florida with their vacation experience, and that's helped sustain our travel numbers," said Visit Florida spokesman Kenneth Morgan.
While beaches and theme parks may have been the state's stock in trade to date, officials are looking to broaden visitors' horizons by informing them of other options.
"After the oil spill, Florida was impacted by a crisis of perception," Morgan said. "Our beaches were fine [but] there was an immediate misperception because of the media focus on what was happening out in the Gulf."
Florida's 825 miles of sandy strands remain what Morgan called "one of our greatest assets," but there's much more water-based fun to be had across the state, whether it's kayaking, diving or exploring aquatic cave systems.
"The diversity of our aquatic experiences may not always be top of mind when visitors are coming to Florida," he said. "But there's so much more than just our beaches."
Aquatic appeal aplenty
For example, Florida boasts miles of springs, lakes and rivers brimming with activity options. Vacationers can relax on the "lazy river" in Lafayette Blue Springs State Park in Mayo, floating along in an inner tube, swimming or snorkeling in 72-degree spring water.
Visitors in the market for something more daring can head for Florida's extensive aquatic cave system. The Green Sink Cave system, recommended by Visit Florida, consists of more than 12,000 feet of cavern passageways.
In Citrus County, Chassahowitzka River Wildlife Tours offers clients guided river tours to view local wildlife such as alligators, otters and bald eagles. Tours last from one to three hours and also include stops at freshwater springs, the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and Dog Island.
Sometimes a zoo is not just a zoo. Brevard Zoo in Melbourne offers canoe and kayaking trips led by trained naturalists. The tours explore Manatee Cove on Merritt Island and Sebastian River in Sebastian, affording participants up-close encounters with manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, horseshoe crabs and a variety of birds.
Vacationers interested in manatees should be pointed to the city of Crystal River, the only place in the U.S. where it's legal to swim with the enigmatic aquatic mammals -- provided visitors have a certified guide from local operators such as Crystal River Manatee Tour & Dive.
Back on the beach front, Cocoa Beach draws surfers, of all things, to Atlantic waters with its six miles of shoreline and three oceanfront parks.
Visit Florida is also looking to tap into the eco-conscious demographic.
"I think green travel is very attractive to many of our visitors," Morgan said. "[They] want to leave as small a footprint as possible."
So, the tourism board is promoting Florida's significant supply of sustainable accommodations and activities as well as its 160 state parks.
"Many of our hotels and resorts across the state are very conscious of, and proactive in, sustaining the resources of their environment," he said. "Sustainable tourism is now an important part of the Florida vacation experience."
Under the voluntary Florida Green Lodging Program, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recognizes accommodations facilities committed to conserving natural resources.
The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs was recently awarded Florida Green Lodging's Three Palm ecofriendly certification. Guestrooms at the 26-acre resort overlook the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, which visitors can explore by bicycle.
On Amelia Island, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation destination resort was recognized by Florida Green Lodging for "offering a luxury resort experience in perfect harmony with nature," according to Visit Florida.
The resort's 1,350 acres are perched at the northern tip of the state, surrounded by the Atlantic, marshlands and the Intra-coastal Waterway.
Activities at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation include Segway tours through preserved lands on the resort's property.
Turning to parks, visitors can board airboats at Everglades National Park to go on a waterborne hunt for colorful plants and wading birds. The park is also a refuge for endangered animals such as manatees, alligators, crocodiles, Florida panthers and Cape Sable seaside sparrows.
The Florida Keys, meanwhile, offers sporting activities that Visit Florida characterizes as ecofriendly, such as kiteboarding, kayaking and live-release fishing.
For more, go to VisitFlorida.com.