Student Groups Will Love This!

Space Camp for the beach? Gulf Shores launches Gulf Camp for environmental education, ecotourism
From the article by Dennis Pillion on

Gulf Shores has spent decades building its reputation as a premiere vacation destination.

Now, the city on Alabama’s Gulf Coast is looking to become a leader in environmental education and programming that will bring more families to learn about the ecologies of Alabama’s coastal areas.

“Myself and our city council had this somewhat large vision of what if we could be for the southern part of this state what Huntsville is for the northern part of the state, with space camp,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft told

Gulf Shores is combining almost $13 million in Restore Act funding — money meant to compensate coastal areas after the 2010 BP oil spill — with city funds to build the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability, a hub for hosting summer camps and other educational programming to teach children and families about the natural environments of Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Craft said the oil spill was a jarring reminder of the importance of protecting the environment, and that the camps will help encourage visitors to be ambassadors for environmental stewardship.

“Those of us that stood on the beaches with oil on our feet in that summer of 2010, when nobody came, we realized how totally dependent we are on clean, safe, usable environment,” Craft said.

Though the Eco Center, as it’s being called, is still under construction, the camps have already started at neighboring Gulf State Park, featuring programs like biking, kayaking, beach restoration projects, outdoor cooking, nature and ecology, arts and crafts and organic gardening.

The curriculum is being developed by Eco Center executive director Travis Langen and the Ocean Futures Society, which is run by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

Langen previously worked for Cousteau’s group in its Ambassadors of the Environment program, which runs environmental education programs in Hawaii, California, the Caribbean, the Maldives, Mexico, and now Gulf Shores.

Langen said the Center will help encourage visitors to take better care of the beaches.

“Gulf Shores is not going out of fashion anytime soon,” Langen said. “It’s getting busier and busier, growing, so how could we accommodate that growth and host an ever-increasing number of people with an ever-decreasing impact and footprint on the landscape?”

“If [visitors] can come in for a week as a tourist in Gulf Shores, then leave as ambassadors of the environment, the next time they come back they’re going to help us and become allies in our hope to really change the way a tourist behaves and acts in the destination.”

While the city of Gulf Shores is administering the grant funding to build the facility, a non-profit entity was created to run the camps in coordination with various government and non-profit groups in the area: Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Gulf State Park, tourism boards, Ambassadors of the Environment, and local chambers of commerce. The city of Gulf Shores signed an eight-year agreement with the non-profit Center for Ecotourism to run the camp programs.

“It has been a big challenge, but the rewards are incredible once you can get basically a whole region dialed in to all share a similar narrative about sustainability about protecting the environment,” Langen said.

The new building, expected to be completed this fall, will feature a farm and garden complex, art center, habitat restoration demonstrations, bicycle hub, wetland lab, event space, and challenge course. The campus will be located just north of Gulf State Park and Lake Shelby, next to Gulf Shores High School, and will attempt to earn LEED Gold certification for sustainability.

The center won’t have overnight accommodations — at least not yet — but the adjoining Gulf State Park facilities can host school groups or other campers.

Craft said that hopefully the camp will grow into an amenity that will attract new visitors to the area, and bolster the city’s reputation as an ecotourism destination.

“We’re tourism and that’s who we are, that’s how we pay the bills, but that’s not what we are,” Craft said. “We’re focused on being responsible people and creating a quality of life that is the best we can make it for everybody that lives here.”

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