Politics & Government

Governor takes steps to boost ecotourism in Kansas

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback wants the state to develop and market its outdoor tourism assets.

So Wednesday afternoon, the governor unveiled an ecotourism steering committee during a tour of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

The committee’s charge is to identify opportunities to get Kansans outdoors, enhance the tourism opportunities at sites across the state and attract visitors to those natural resources, Brownback said.

“What we’re trying to do is two things: Get more assets out, more availability of the great outdoors, and tell more people about it,” the governor said. “I think sometimes we don’t recognize what we have.”

Brownback’s goal is a system of fully developed outdoor tourist attractions drawing visitors from in-state and around the globe, a system that can be linked with neighboring states.

“I’d love to be able to see us be able to hike from St. Louis to Herington, Kansas. Hike, bike, horseback ride, things like that,” the governor said. “We’ve opened up 60-some miles of Flint Hills trails and that can be linked into the Katy Trail in Missouri even to Topeka and Kansas City.”

The state’s existing outdoor attractions need to be enhanced and developed, Brownback said, with more amenities. One example is at Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend, where the governor advocated better lodging for hunters and birdwatchers.

“People from Boston, from around the world, they’ve been following this particular migratory bird much of their life and they could sleep there right next to Cheyenne Bottoms and wake up the next morning hearing the bird they’ve tracked.”

The 16-member steering committee will be led by Robin Jennison, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary. Its stated goal is to recommend objectives, marketing strategies and policies to grow the industry. Its first meeting is set for Thursday in Topeka.

The committee will move quickly, Jennison said, planning a report to Brownback by early next year.

According to state documents, tourism is the third-largest industry in Kansas, with an economic impact of more than $5.4 billion.

In a news release, Brownback’s office said more than 790,000 people participated in wildlife watching last year in Kansas, putting more than $208 million into the state’s economy.

Brownback acknowledged that the tourism enhancements will come with a price tag, and talked about a public-private partnership to do everything from enhance lodging at attractions like Cheyenne Bottoms to develop river paths and trails to connect with neighboring states.

“A mixture on that,” Brownback said. “You saw the announcement last week by Transportation and Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for $2 million for trails over the $1.3 million of prior years.

“The state parks, a number of them have cabins on them. We financed those, and the state paid those bonds off so that money will go straight to the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. My hope is we can build more of those and look for other financing. We’ll have to look in a number of different places, but I also think you’ve got a number of private people who will put private money into specific projects and certain areas.”

Nature-based tourism, or ecotourism, melds conservation, travel and communities for travelers interested in exploring the outdoors. By definition, ecotourism includes hiking, biking, camping, wildflower walks, wildlife watching, river floating, unique landscapes and other outdoor activities.