By BRIANA BARKER
As Ferrum College welcomes students back for the fall semester, the college has also announced three new majors in elementary education, music and ecotourism.
The school’s new ecotourism major was previously offered as a minor but as the field has grown and the local need has expanded, Christopher Mayer, assistant professor of recreation leadership and coordinator of the ecotourism degree program, said the time was right to expand the program.
“We have seen this incredible growth in the region as far as outdoor recreation,” Mayer said. “We want to help train this generation’s industry leaders.”
As Franklin and surrounding counties have lost furniture, tobacco and textile industries during the past decades, the abundance of nature--with the Blue Ridge Parkway, Philpott Lake and Smith Mountain Lake--has been gaining attention.
Whereas tourism tends to focus on getting heads in beds and filling large hotels, ecotourism touts responsible nature-based travel and recreation to support conservation and biodiversity.
“We have seen that (tourism) has had a major impact on the environment especially in terms of our carbon footprint, the amount of habitat destruction and disturbance while creating parking lots and creating infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of people,” Mayer said.
Mayer said the field is expanding across the commonwealth. According to a study by Virginia Tourism Corporation, Virginia tourism revenues reached $25 billion in 2017. Franklin County has been looking to capitalize on its piece of the ecotourism pie even as the Ferrum Village Plan was passed last week by county supervisors. While part of the draw is still getting “heads into beds,” there is nature in Franklin County to be marketed.
Mayer explained that ecotourism is more than just nature, though. “Ecotourism has a strong educational component,” he said. “You don’t just go to a place and nature is in the background; there are maybe tour guides or interpretive signs that help you learn.”
He added a driving force of ecotourism is keeping local money local with small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, small campgrounds and hunting or fishing guides, which diversifies the economic benefits of the region.
The ecotourism major could also bring jobs to Franklin County if graduates look to stay in the area as they enter the workforce. Careers related to the ecotourism major include interpretive ranger, tour guide, environmental education specialists, ecotourism marketing manager, travel writer, research station managers, park rangers, eco-lodge manager, conservation scientists, ecotourism project managers and protected area planning consultants, among others.
“Graduates of the ecotourism program will be able to find careers as ecotourism entrepreneurs, guides and as interpretive rangers with land management agencies like the National Park Service,” he said.
Mayer said he believes many travelers have seen “bucket list places” and are looking for new things, things that are more authentic and ones that are not degraded.
“They also understand their visit has an impact, and they want to know their vacation is not hurting the environment,” he added.
The new major is multidisciplinary, which allows students to focus their future in different directions whether they have an interest in communications, planning, protected area management or operating ecotourism.
“We have a lot of students who want to be conservation rangers and work for the parks or work for the fish and wildlife service,” Mayer said.
He said he believes this is one of the fist ecotourism programs in the United States, all while centrally located to many natural places such as the lakes.
The ecotourism major seeks to empower those who plan and implement ecotourism-related activities and see themselves as hosts and stewards of the earth’s most incredible natural resources, according to its catalog description and offers Ferrum College students courses in rock climbing and repelling, canoeing and kayaking, fly fishing, nature guiding, interpreting culture and nature. Offering these courses provide experiential learning for students.