In this edition of Brownsville Off Topic, United Brownsville and The Brownsville Herald talk with Dr. Rose Gowen, Brownsville city commissioner, about a plan to develop “active tourism” in Cameron County. For the full 22-minute interview, log on to http://tinyurl.com/gqr84uk.
The following includes excerpts from discussion:
What is an active tourist?
Dr. Rose Gowen: An active tourist as one who wants to be active when they vacation. They want to play golf, they want to kayak, they want to walk, run, ride a bike. They want to try all the things that are available in that area and then some. They don’t want to sit in front of the TV while they’re on vacation, for the entire vacation.
How did this plan to develop active tourism begin?
Gowen: So a couple years ago, a team in Brownsville that worked on all our wellness and people-friendly-spaces initiatives got together to look for funding to establish infrastructure to connect the entire Cameron County, city to city, with an eye toward tourism — what would an active tourism want to see in Cameron County. So we reached out to The Legacy Foundation and were awarded $100,000, and then we reached out to 10 other cities in the county to accomplish an additional $100,000 to find consultants who would create the Active Transportation Tourism Plan for Cameron County.
How many partners does the plan have today?
Gowen: There are 10 cities from Cameron County that are participating. Each of those cities contributed $10,000 to the initiative.
What is that investment going toward?
Gowen: It’s to create the plan, and then from the plan we will be able to break out segments–as funding becomes available and other grants arise–to be able to do the bricks-and-mortar building
What is the appeal for such tourism in the Rio Grande Valley?
Gowen: Well, I think all of us would agree we have a lot of rich things here in Cameron County that are not available in other parts of the state. Texas is a big state. We have beautiful coastland, we have beautiful birding and fishing. We also have lovely resacas and the Arroyo Colorado that can be kayaked in. Transportation can be easily accomplished on water in a friendly way. We have flat land with a lot of green space, and we have a wealth of drainage canals throughout Cameron County that have unused rights-of-way on the sides of those drainage canals that can be converted into trails.
Why did you smile when you said “flat land”?
Gowen: When we looked at developing a tourism plan, you want to market to all tourists, not just to the elite cyclist out there. You want beginners too — and families with small children. So a very mountainous place is not a very friendly place for a beginner or a family with small children. We have the benefit that it’s flat, so it’s a welcome environment for all levels
Do people who come to the Rio Grande Valley for one kind of tourism look for other leisure activities while they’re here?
Gowen: Absolutely. We have a beautiful beach, and already many people come for beaches, but this is an opportunity to do more than just sit on the beach. You can stay here for the same amount of time or maybe a few more days extra and maybe check out the trails or the kayak sites that we have. There are several historical sites throughout Cameron County. There are birding and nature sites, and all rolled into one you have the making of a 2- maybe 3-week vacation.
Are there opportunities to connect destinations within Cameron County?
Gowen: Absolutely. Many of the cities that are involved in this plan like Harlingen and South Padre Island are creating their own hike-and-bike plans for their cities, so these connections in this active plan will complement what’s available in their cities. For example, in Brownsville, some of these trails will lead into our current historic battlefield trails that we have now, so you can ride between Los Fresnos and Brownsville and then check out the national park on FM 511 and come all the way into downtown and visit a museum in Dean Porter Park and all those sites. And so the cities within themselves have sites that will connect to these other connections.
How do you get someone who arrives at South Padre Island to ride a bike to either Brownsville Harlingen?
Gowen: You have to brand the experience, to begin with, so that the person who is staying on the Island who didn’t necessarily come here to ride a bike sees the marketing. And the brand involved in the marketing is engaging. [And the tourist says, “I don’t know what the Bahia Grande is, but that sign and that information really captures my interest so I’m going to go rent a bike and try it out.”] And that’s how you get people to try it. You can’t just have the plan sitting on the shelf. You have to have a marketing piece behind it and branding so that it’s a destination, something that becomes known for the area.
What is the economic return?
Gowen: [It involves] hotel-motel [taxes], restaurant [sales], t-shirts sales and bike shops. When you’re riding that trail, you might get a flat tire and maybe you need to get a fix, or maybe you traveled here and you didn’t bring your own bike so there are bike rentals. All that goes into evaluating the economic impact of the trail versus what it would have been if the trail had not been there.
How unique is it that this plan includes the entire county?
Gowen: When we went out for the bid for the contract to decide on who was going to be our consultants, we heard from all of them that this was a unique project and that’s why they were so interested in bidding for the work. We had some offerings of folks that would be consultants who flew overnight from Europe just to be here to present to us because they were so excited about the prospect of creating a regional plan for South Texas. So we feel that it was very well received and it is very unique, and that’s why it really can’t sit on this shelf. We have to brand it and market it and get it on the road so that we can begin to see the rewards.
For the full 22-minute interview, log on to http://tinyurl.com/gqr84uk.
About Brownsville Off Topic: Brownsville Off Topic, a partnership with The Brownsville Herald and United Brownsville, is a series of podcasts and discussions about various topics affecting Brownsville and the surrounding community. If you would like to suggest a topic or an interview, email Herald editor Ryan Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org or United Brownsville executive director Mike Gonzalez at email@example.com.