Nature Based Tourism Is Not REALLY About Nature

by Joanne Steele on March 4, 2011

I just received my regular monthly newsletter from Nebraska Rural Living, and the top story was about nature-based tourism and the spring migration of the White Pelican to Harlan County Nebraska.

What’s so important about the Spring Migration of the White Pelican?

White Pelicans in flightThe same question can be asked about the Spring return of swallows to Capistrano, and the Canada Geese along the Pacific Flyway.

What’s the big deal? Because people love to be there at the moment these things happen.

It’s the heart and soul of nature-based tourism. Be there when this bird hatches, or this frog sings its once a year song. (Yes, I was in the Everglades when this happened, and I still remember the thrill I felt.)

The question is, how do we market these special nature-based tourism opportunities?

There is a small population of avid wildlife lovers who will drop everything to be on hand for these things.

What Pat Underwood, Harlan County, Nebraska’s tourism director knows, building a tourism industry around these few enthusiasts isn’t going to make a rural area a nature-based tourism destination.

We need to dig deeper into WHY people want to be there for the return of the swallows, or migration of the whales, or the hatching of the butterflies.

Marketing the FEELING that these experiences evoke is what will turn White Pelican watching in Harlan County from a party for a few pelican lovers into the spring place to be – like Capistrano and the swallows.

How do you capture the FEELING and use it in your marketing?

Here’s a fantastic technique I learned from Sonia Simone, one of the most astute and effective marketing wonks on the internet.

You start with your feature – in this case, watching the return of the White Pelican to Harlan County, Nebraska.

Then you project from your own knowledge of your customer – the people who already DO this kind of thing.

I’m going to suggest that a good person to profile would be an outdoorsy woman in her late 50’s and 60’s who likes to do wildlife watching when she travels. She travels with girlfriends, husband or significant other, and sometimes with grown children and grandchildren. She’s feeling a the exhilaration of the independence from motherhood, but also not liking the feeling of slowing down physically a bit. I know a lot about this customer having just finished working with a client who is profiling this person for his business.

Now, we have a targeted Perfect Customer, and we have a feature. Let’s do a mashup and see what we learn about how to talk about this amazing birdwatching experience and how it will appeal to a broader audience.

This technique Sonia calls the Benefits Ladder, and we’ll include a brief example – I’ve had business owners fill pages completing one of these. The goal is to fill up the middle with all the juicy insights into the motivations and feelings of your customer, not get to the end.

The Benefits Ladder

Question: What does watching the return of the White Pelican do for our Outdoorsy Woman?

Answer: She likes the feeling of being right on the spot when something exciting is happening.

Question: So, why does she care about feeling “right on the spot when something exciting is happening.”

Answer: Because it makes her feel excited and renewed.

Question: So why does she care about feeling excited and renewed?

Answer: Because it helps her get out of her daily concerns about her life to watch this cycle of renewal in nature.

Question: Why should she care about that?

Answer: Because it helps her feel more confident and happy about her own life and future.

Question: Why should she care about that?

Answer: Because it gives her a positive sense of personal renewal.

Question: Why should she care about that?

Answer: Ultimately, because it makes her feel better about herself!!

Yup, the ultimate motivator for everything we do as human beings is, IT MAKES US FEEL BETTER ABOUT OURSELVES!

How can Harlan County use this knowledge to market the return of the White Pelican?

By marketing online to exactly the perfect customer for this activity using the language like what we uncovered in this Benefits Ladder.

Renewal, energized, being right on the spot when something exciting happens, getting out of your daily concerns and watch this reminder of better times and the cycle of nature, feeling that confidence in a better future that these Pelicans remind us of…

No long strings of adjectives about pelicans. Just well crafted descriptions of their return as a metaphor for the experience of renewal that people are actually craving when they return again and again for these spring rites. That’s what nature-based tourism is all about.

Give the Benefits Ladder a try for your own business or town. Start as I did with your targeted Perfect Customer, and a feature of your town or your business, and see what you uncover that you can use in your marketing.


Here are several posts about identifying and cataloging your assets and features:

Your Small Town’s Unique Assets – Regional Flavor Principle #2

Community Centered Rural Economic Development Kansas Style

What Is This Thing Called Rural Experience Tourism


For residents in Arkansas and the surrounding states, join one of Joanne’s workshops this spring. More information about places and times here…

Photo © 2009 Britta Heise



1 Frank March 6, 2011 at 3:19 am

Oh, really liked this article, great stuff.

Think I will pinch the concept and use it in a site I am slowly building traffic around. It is an “Eco tourism ” location here in Australia, reckon a lot of the demographic is similar to what you have mentioned above. Spot on, thanks! ( this is the site: ) it’s a great place 😉 .

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