HOLT — A group of Bolivian citizens visited the Blackwater River State Park Friday morning as part of the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program.
On Thursday, the group visited Gulf Islands National Sea Shore in Navarre. The goal of their trip to the area is to gain insight into eco-tourism and how to develop similar experiences in their own country. Many of the citizens work in national parks in Bolivia.
The visit began with a welcome from Park Manager Marshall Shaw and Park Services Specialist Darrell Hatfield. Hatfield then explained the Florida State Park system and specifically the statistics associated with the Blackwater River State Park.
“We have to work really hard to balance our mission, which is to protect the parks and also allow the public to come in and use the parks for recreation,” Hatfield said.
According to Hatfield, Blackwater River State Park contributes approximately $14.6 million annually into the local economy. The attendance last year reached 83,000 guests. Blackwater River State Park has four full-time employees that cover more than 500 acres of protected land.
One of the guests, who works in Torotoro National Park in Bolivia, asked how the rangers at Blackwater make visitors respect the capacity limits. She said indigenous tribes live within the Torortoro park. Therefore, they are unable to close the park off completely and some days they are over capacity by a great number.
Shaw said Blackwater tries to market discounts during slow seasons, giving visitors an incentive to come during the week or in the winter, instead of during busy times. This lessens the capacity during the times the park is most visited, like summer months or weekends.
After the South Americans learned about protection efforts from the park rangers, they went on a canoe trip on the Blackwater River. The group will head to Santa Fe, NM, after their stay in Pensacola.
The program participants are chosen based on their work in their home countries, according to Jena Melancon, executive director of the Gulf Coast Diplomacy Council, which arranged the local portion of the program. The council sees approximately three foreign groups per month for educational experiences.