Tammy Heon said her favorite part about kayaking the Weeki Wachee river is paddling around one of the river bends and looking up to see an eagle’s nest on an old pine tree.
“If your timing is right you can see the mama eagle sitting on the edge of the nest,” she said. “It’s spectacular.”
Natural sites like the Weeki Wachee river have contributed to the recent growth in tourism for Hernando County. A recent report revealed substantial growth in tourism for the county, which is now marketed as Florida’s “Adventure Coast.”
According to a press release, tax collections from overnight accommodations rose 79 percent from $410,492 to $736,148 in the past fiscal year alone.
Heon, tourism manager of the Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitors Bureau, attributes the growth to the abundance of outdoor recreation offered all over the county, as well as heavy marketing and rebranding initiatives.
The tourism-marketing bureau was rebranded and is now known as Florida’s Adventure Coast Brooksville Weeki Wachee. Rebranding has been successful in giving the area an unique identity among the five surrounding nature coast communities and making it easier to find, according to Heon.
Heon said the rebranding initiative came to fruition after four months of research, which included interviews with local stakeholders and surveys completed by current visitors and people who planned to visit.
Based on the data collected, intent to visit was 38 percent prior to extensive marketing and rebranding efforts, but rose to 92.75 percent after those efforts, she said.
Tourists can participate in several outdoor recreation and nature experiences, including bird watching, hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, scallop diving and horseback riding.
However, the attraction tourists are most drawn to are the mermaids.
Heon said the mermaids of the Weeki Wachee Springs came alive in 1946 when Newton Perry, a navy diver and trainer, gave life to his vision of having beautiful women swim in the springs.
“He had to do quite some clean up because in the 1940s people were throwing old refrigerators and tires into the springs, before the days of environmental awareness,” she said.
Heon said Perry experimented with underwater breathing hoses, introduced a small theater into the springs and trained girls to use the breathing hoses to swim underwater.
Since then, the area has become a state park and offers several other amenities such as a river cruise and animal shows. The mermaids perform three to five shows 365 days a year, the Weeki Wachee Springs Park website says.
Jordyn Belmonte, one of the park’s mermaid performers, said people from all over the world visit the park to see the mermaid shows.
She has been working as a mermaid for about a year-and-a-half and knew she wanted to be a mermaid ever since her mother took her to one of the shows as a child. She said her favorite part of her job is seeing the kids’ excitement.
“You press your face up and you can see their little hands banging on the glass,” Belmonte said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it really is something magical that we bring to life for them.”
Heon said The Weeki Wachee State Park brought in 384,723 visitors for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, making it a large contributor to tourism growth.
Manatees have also contributed to tourism growth, she said, in part because of a viral video taking place in the Weeki Wachee River in which two paddle boarders were joined by a swarm of manatees.
The video received more than 6 million views, according to Heon, and was picked up by ABC, NBC and Fox News.
Heon said that another factor that helped tourism growth was recovery from the BP oil spill. She said that even though the county never had oil on its coast, it lost about $17,000 in tourism taxes the year following the oil spill.
She said other beneficiaries from tourism growth have been hotels, restaurants and local businesses such as kayak outfitters. Heon mentioned that tourists pay 23 percent of all sales taxes in Florida.
In terms of environmental impact, Heon stressed her department is very aware of the fact that tourists may cause degradation to natural amenities. However, it has not yet become a concern.
“I think our challenge is to make sure that we manage the growth of tourism and the utilization of our natural assets while educating our visitors, as well as our residents, about good stewardship and maintaining that beautiful natural environment without over using it or destroying it,” she said. “But we have a population here that is very passionate about the great outdoors, and so they work hard to protect the preserves.”