Trail News

Virginia Ecotour Guide Certification Course Earns 2019 Virginia Green Travel Star Award

June 26, 2020

We all know how special our certified ecotour guides are across rural coastal Virginia.

They help visitors and locals alike explore Virginia’s water trails in ways they might not have otherwise imagined. They’ve turned a passion for paddling into viable businesses; and they’re just as likely to be found enjoying the waterways on their days off as their days on.

With this announcement, now the rest of the state knows just how special our certified ecotour guides are, and the program that trains them.

The Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (PDC), along with coastal PDC partners in the Northern Neck and on the Middle Peninsula, with support from Virginia Coastal Zone Management, proudly announced earlier this year that the Virginia Certified Ecotour Guide Course earned the 2019 Virginia Green Travel Star Award for Innovative Green Project.

History of the Virginia Certified Ecotour Guide Course

In the 1990s, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program was working on the Eastern Shore to protect migratory bird habitat and promote sustainable coastal industries such as ecotourism. Tourism is a major driver in Virginia’s economy and ecotourism is especially important in rural coastal Virginia as it connects people to the very natural resources we strive to protect, instilling a strong will to take care of these life-sustaining resources.

During the course of that initial effort, a news article appeared showing a tour guide standing in a marsh, holding back the grasses so that his clients could see the eggs of a whimbrel – something that could have caused great harm as the guide or the clients could have unwittingly stepped on hidden eggs.

This was not the type of tourism the CZM Program had hoped to promote. CZM wanted responsible ecotourism that both connected people to nature, and did so in a safe way for all involved.

It became clear that training guides for the specific purpose of ecotourism, who could in turn educate tourists visiting rural coastal Virginia, was needed.

The CZM Program asked the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to take on a grant to develop an ecotour guide certification course for the Eastern Shore.

Through subsequent CZM grants to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the course was broadened to include all of Virginia’s coastal habitats. Most recently grants have been awarded to the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, who’s joint efforts with partnering rural coastal PDCs (Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula), have allowed for increased efforts to promote rural coastal ecotourism and continue to offer ecotour guide certification classes, historically through rural community colleges, and currently through an online platform.

“The courses have been a huge success and now over 90 guides have been certified and no doubt, many species of wildlife and habitats have been protected and appreciated thanks to these trained guides,” said Laura McKay, Program Manager, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, DEQ.

About the Course

Virginia’s Certified Ecotour Guide Course is now an eight-week, “live” online class that provides participants the certification credentials they need to lead their own ecotours.

The course focuses on various aspects of ecotourism, including ecosystem science, customer service, business marketing, interpretation skills, culture and natural history. Guest speaker presentations and interpretive materials and resources are incorporated into the course, not only providing the participants with experienced individuals in their respective fields, but also to stimulate active discussion throughout the course.

In order to qualify for an ecotourism certification, a CPR & First Aid Certification is required and can be obtained at the student’s convenience prior to the conclusion of the course. The guide certification lasts for four years, after which time the guide must re-certify either by means of taking the course again, or tracking qualified efforts equivalent to the course length and material.

The course runs from January through March and concludes with two in-person field trips that offer participants and facilitators a chance to meet face-to-face and network among each other, while gaining a first-hand experience of a tour from a trained guide and using skills learned throughout the course to further develop their own ecotour guide skills.

Upon successful completion of the course, participants simultaneously earn their Virginia Green Certification and are added to the Virginia Water Trails HIRE AN ECOTOUR GUIDE page here.

Want to Become a Guide?

Interested in the next course? Stay tuned to this page HERE for the announcement of the next registration period. Want to be among the first to know? Sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page (look in the footer) and email Jessica Steelman, Coastal Planner to be added to the waiting list.