Swamp tours have always been a hit with people wanting to see the natural beauty of Louisiana or anxious to see a large alligator, but they serve a more important purpose, as the Louisiana coastline is receding rapidly and swamps are becoming inundated with the Gulf of Mexico's saltwater, killing plants and wildlife. The race is on to save our land, and swamp tours can help teach their attentive visitors that the land and bodies of water they are currently seeing are already being eroded.
Swamps are an integral part of the southern Louisiana ecosystem. According to the wetland restoration coalition Voice of the Wetlands, our state loses between twenty-five and thirty-five square miles of land every year. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Center for Cultural & Eco-Tourism knows that our land is being lost rapidly. "All industries along the coastline have been impacted by saltwater intrusion at various levels, whether it's the fisherman, the swamp tour operators, ecologists and environmental scientists who have particularly noted the differences in the habitat, and the plants and animals that are able to survive with saltwater intrusion. Things like extremely harsh hurricane seasons and oil spills directly impact the environment and bring it to a national audience. But it's an ongoing issue, and a problem we've always faced. It's important to keep that in mind: it doesn't go away just because the oil spill got cleaned up or because we had three or four relatively quiet hurricane seasons," explains the Center's Assistant Director, Jennifer Ritter Guidry.
The Center has compiled a listing of many cultural and environmental tours in our state to help tourists make their decisions about which tours to book. They base their recommendations on the area of the state and what type of water body they want to experience, but emphasize booking locally owned tours with an ecofriendly business model. "Eco-tourism is defined multiple ways, but it's basically enjoying the natural resources of an area with a preservation component in mind. So while you're hiking, biking, birding, fishing, you're also aware of the impact on the environment. And you're also looking at ways to preserve the natural environment," explains Guidry.
Along with tourists who are drawn to the French Quarter or Cajun country, potential visitors to swamp tours can be rebuffed by natural and man-made disasters, leading to a decline in attendance. "Impact studies were done to see where the businesses were after the 2005 hurricane season, and several of them had had to close because of either damage to their property or the area in which they conducted their tours. But overall, the state has had its best tourism year since before 2005, so leaders in the Department of Cultural Recreation and Tourism say that we have fully recovered from those natural disasters, and we're back on track with our tourism gross that had been projected before that season," says Guidry.
And with emerging technology that is eco-friendly, the Center believes that swamp tours can grow their efforts of helping the land from which they make their living. "What we hope all swamp tour operators are doing is providing accurate and complete information about the environment, providing services like trash and recycling receptacles, and are not directly interacting with the animals that are encountered during the swamp tour or otherwise negatively impacting the environment in which those animals live," says Guidry.
One tour that the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism has listed is the Cajun Country Swamp Tour in Breaux Bridge. The company promises to educate tourists while having as little negative effect on the swamp as possible. The tour uses smaller crawfish skiffs with modified 4-stroke outboard motors instead of the large pontoon boats used by other companies. This also allows the boat to travel into shallower water than most. A tour guide named Walter "Butch" Guchereau even holds degrees in zoology and botany.
The well-known tour company Honey Island Swamp Tour sets itself apart by taking tourists on some of the most pristine swamps and rivers in the America. Honey Island Swamp is located in Slidell, Louisiana, in the Nature Conservancy's 250-square mile Louisiana Nature Preserve. An area of 70,000 acres shows off permanently protected land and wildlife. Fishing is allowed in the area, and the native fish include bluegill, largemouth bass, and even crawfish.
Jennifer Ritter Guidry emphasizes that everyone from locals to tourists should enjoy a swamp tour at least once. "I encourage everybody to come to Louisiana and really immerse themselves in the environment as well as the culture," explains Guidry. You'll better understand your state's delicate and complex eco-system and appreciate the efforts to preserve it from further erosion.
You can see the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism's listing of tours on their website at ccet.louisiana.edu.